The Times West Virginian


October 10, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN-It’s time to put out fire for good

MORGANTOWN — There is some dispute over when — and where — man began using fire, some claiming it was discovered as long ago as 790,000 years at the Lower Paleolithic site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel.

Perhaps because that is disputed by some has kept it from becoming a vacation destination.

What is known, however, is that shortly after the discovery of fire and the fact that it could turn a raw dinosaur steak into a near delicacy, the first Burger King opened and offered flame-broiled Tyrannosaurus Whoppers, which were big enough you didn’t need to order a double.

From there, of course, the uses for fire spread.

“The discovery of fire, or, more precisely, the controlled use of fire was, of necessity, one of the earliest of human discoveries. Fire’s purposes are multiple, some of which are to add light and heat, to cook plants and animals, to clear forests for planting, to heat-treat stone for making stone tools, to burn clay for ceramic objects,” began an article on the subject on the website

Note, please, that nowhere does it mention using fire to celebrate football victories, especially not when you are burning such items as automobiles, houses, perhaps little children and their pets while pelting the fire and police with bricks, rocks and bottles.

But couch fires and football victories have long been a Morgantown tradition, much to the chagrin of anyone not wearing a fraternity beany or having even an inkling of common sense. This sophomoric behavior — often fittingly being performed by a college sophomore — damages both property and reputation.

This was made obvious earlier this year when the University of Kentucky celebrated its NCAA victory over Baylor by setting 12 sofas aflame, even more than WVU students were to do just four months later after defeating the very same Baylor in football.

Out of that grew an article on that was entitled: WVU takes credit for couch-burning craze that has caught fire at UK, other campuses. Clearly, that kind of publicity makes the city fathers and the WVU hierarchy hot under the collar.

Efforts have been made to make the fire bug extinct in Morgantown. Just last year the city enacted legislation making couch fires a felony, Class A if someone happened to be sitting in the couch at the time.

According to the article, the burning of couches (and Dumpsters) in Morgantown went back to a time when residential trash pickup wasn’t enforced.

“In student neighborhoods where the population comes and goes, trash piled up. Burning it provided both a celebration and a service,” it said.

It also went on to note that such trash burning is what criminologists call the “routine activity theory.”

Basically, something like setting fire to a couch becomes just something people do when there is no “capable guardian” around to say, ‘Wait, let’s think this through.’ (The availability of alcohol doesn’t hurt.),” the article said.

Nowhere in the article, or anywhere else, does it offer an explanation for putting the emergency service people, police and fire, into danger of physical harm or even death from thrown objects. This isn’t drunken mayhem. At this point it has progressed into criminal assault and the police would have every right to draw weapons and return fire — a carefully chosen word here — in response.

As Saturday night this past week burned into Sunday morning and some sanity returned, it became obvious that something had to be done to put an end to this tradition, and there was no shortage of people willing to speak to the matter from the Morgantown mayor to the police chief and fire chief and even to Jim Clements, the WVU president, who conveniently had his “State of the University Address” scheduled later in the week.

“We will take a very hard line on this kind of behavior,” Clements said in that address.

He called the behavior of the students who rioted in the aftermath of WVU’s road victory over Texas “disgraceful and shameful” and promised swift disciplinary action against those responsible.

“I am angry and I am frustrated at the behavior of some of our students and others after the game,” Clements said. “The worst of the post-game behavior Saturday night was unacceptable, dangerous and inexcusable.

“We cannot and will not tolerate it,” he said.

Quickly, Mayor Jim Manilla proposed a $20-per-semester fee to fund additional police and firefighters, but in truth they will not be necessary if the university has a strong reaction to what has taken place and if the city doesn’t crack down in some way on enforcing the laws already on the books about underage drinking, overserving, overcrowding and drunken behavior on its streets.

It must be a combined effort and it must be done quickly, for on Oct. 20 Kansas State comes to Morgantown to face WVU in a night game that could produce the biggest victory of the season for the Mountaineers.

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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