The University of Arizona

Building a Tradition: The Homecoming Bonfire

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | November 8, 2012

A team of more than 30 students will set out the morning of Nov. 9 to collect the wood for the annual Homecoming bonfire.

The annual bonfire signals the kickoff of Homecoming weekend.
The annual bonfire signals the kickoff of Homecoming weekend.

Many a Wildcat has witnessed the iconic Friday night blaze that for years has signaled the start of Homecoming weekend at the University of Arizona. Perhaps fewer have wondered how the massive bonfire west of Old Main is actually constructed.

As it turns out, it takes a village – or at least several dedicated campus and community volunteers – to build a Homecoming fire.

The process begins early Friday morning when the 13 members of the University’s Bobcats Senior Honorary, along with about 20 athletes from the UA men’s rugby team, hit the road in a caravan of pick-up trucks to collect the fuel for the fire.

The students typically start about 7 a.m., loading up used wood pallets from a local business that keep plenty in store.

Meanwhile, back on campus, a team from UA Facilities Management preps the ground outside Old Main with a tarp and sand to protect the grass from the flames.

When the students arrive with the pallets, they work with Facilities Management to arrange the wood in a stack towering some 6 feet high. The job is usually done well before lunchtime, and then – the wait for nightfall.

“The bonfire is one of those things everyone has experienced,” said Jill Hall, vice president of student and alumni outreach for the UA Alumni Association and adviser for the Bobcats Senior Honorary. “It’s one of those old traditions we do every year, and it signifies the start of Homecoming. It’s a great place to meet people when they come back to campus.”

While the exact history of the UA’s bonfire tradition is unclear, it is believed to have started as early as 1920, and possibly before then, Hall said.

Although many new Homecoming traditions have emerged since – like the Campus and Collegiate Showcase and the lighting of "A" Mountain – the bonfire remains a tried and true favorite.

“It unites various groups on campus, and it’s a sight to see,” said Devin Gregory, a UA political science senior and president of the Bobcats Senior Honorary. “When else can you have a fire in the middle of Old Main circle?”

This year’s bonfire will follow the Bear Down Friday celebration, which is slated for 5-7 p.m. on East University Boulevard. At 7, the crowd at Main Gate Square will be invited to follow Wilma, Wilbur, the Pride of Arizona marching band and UA cheerleaders to Old Main, where the Tucson Fire Department will light the bonfire and remain on stand-by to ensure it stays controlled. 

Football coach Rich Rodriguez and members of the UA football team will attend the bonfire and pep rally. Like every year since 1988, the blaze will serve as the backdrop for the crowning of the UA Homecoming king and queen.

When the festivities end at 8 p.m., the Tucson Fire Department will extinguish the blaze – until next year.