Like most of us at this time of year, the people of Green Oaks, Ill., are spring cleaning. Residents are getting rid of old trash - including couches.
But little do many homeowners know that some of the couches they kick to the curb don't make it to the landfill. Rather, they end up in backyards where they are lit on fire for enjoyment.
"We pick up couches from the curb and burn them," said Nick Riedel, a 22-year-old student from Green Oaks. "We picked up 14 items of furniture, six couches. It's a very social thing."
Over the past month, students across Canada and the United States who have polished off their papers and wrapped up their exams have begun participating in a growing springtime ritual: couch-burning parties.
Couch burning began as an American sports tradition in the mid-1970s. When a university football or basketball team scores a victory, students light sofas on fire in celebration. The school best known for couch burning is West Virginia University in Morgantown, which has also been ranked in the annual Princeton Review as the top party school of 2008. The student motto of WVU is: "Where greatness is learned." Students have added, "and where couches are burned."
David Fetty, the fire chief of Morgantown, said now is the time for couch burnings. "They're in the spring when the kids are excited about getting out of school," he said. "They're outside, they're drunk, they're freewheeling and out for a good time."
But now the parties are not just for sports buffs. Instead of happening on campus, they take place in rural backyards and forests. They're almost like a bonfire, but many say couch burning is more entertaining.
"The fire is way more intense," said Paul Wade, 27, from Burlington, Ont., who attended couch-burning parties every spring while studying at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. "The most interesting thing is how hyped everyone gets when burning a couch. It seems like the animal comes out when it's lit on fire."
If a couch is not plucked from a roadside (some are even dragged out of dumpsters), they are taken from graduating students' houses or dormitories.
The host of the party typically has a large vehicle to carry the couch to a spacious, often rural, backyard. Friends are told at the last minute. "We would never post the day or time of a party online," said Ryan Marrast, a 26-year-old basketball player who played host to couch burnings at Acadia until moving to Toronto last year. "We just do it through word of mouth on the day of, and it spreads like wildfire."
After the couch is plunked in the host's backyard, friends show up with the brew, like any other party. Just as logs would sit in a fire pit, so does a couch. It is drenched in kerosene or gasoline, or just lit with a match. Many couches burn in 15 minutes or less, though the ones with box springs take longer. Pleather and vinyl couches are avoided because they stink and sometimes explode. In general, the flames of a couch burning can rise as high as six metres.
People usually watch a bonfire from the sidelines, but at couch burnings they jump right in. "Last time, some of our friends were jumping over or sitting on to see how long they could stay on the couch; it was hilarious," said Amanda Neeb, who holds couch-burning parties every year in her Stratford, Ont., backyard. "It's quite the high, seeing something go up in flames and watching it burn. I love it."
Singeing body hair is also a problem for those who veer too close. Andrew Milauskas, an 18-year-old student at West Virginia University, insists that watching the fire is simply not enough. "My favourite part is jumping over the fire; all the hairs on my legs get burned off, eyelashes, eyebrows gone," he said. "I love campfire and playing with fire. It's the sense of danger, living life on the edge."
Of course, couch burning has its downfalls, too. According to Charles Jia, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto, the act has environmental repercussions. "Burning furniture will generate more toxic emissions than burning pure wood," he said. "Lots of furniture is made of plastic and foam parts. If you burn it under the rate of high temperature, some vapours become toxic to your health. It's not environmentally friendly, that's for sure."
Though a few couch burners have received noise complaints for their parties, none have been arrested. According to Mr. Fetty, in the United States, couch burning is considered burning garbage and is illegal.
Couch burning is also illegal in Canada, said Jim Lee, an Ottawa firefighter and assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "It's very dangerous," he said. "When we used to celebrate that school is out, we'd go grab a beer. Can't they find anything else to do? Can't they go cow tipping or something?"