On a drizzly autumn evening, hundreds of students gathered to celebrate the 90th annual Starvation Gulch festival at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Saturday, where massive piles of wooden pallets doused in diesel fuel lit up the Interior Alaska sky.
The Starvation Gulch festival was founded in 1923 by the university’s first president, Charles E. Bunnell, who hoped the fires would symbolize passing the torch of knowledge. Students constructed a mock town to party in during the day and burn at night. They named the town Starvation Gulch after the rugged pioneers who first settled in the Interior community, known for its harsh, seemingly endless winters.
Today's celebration is safer than it was in the early years. Students can no longer build 75-foot structures to burn, and they can’t discharge shotguns to dissuade thieves, as they did 1948.
Student groups gather their own pallets for the event, which are stacked up in the days leading up to the fire. This year, six groups had piles collected for the event, including the Honors Society and UAF firefighters.
Hundreds gathered in the Taku parking lot on university grounds, cheering in chilly, wet weather that “didn’t seem to slow anybody from coming down,” UAF fire chief Doug Schrage said.
Around 10 p.m., university firefighters doused the piles with diesel fuel before Chancellor Brian Rogers and a student took turns lighting the fires, while hundreds cheered them on.
The celebration serves as a welcome to new and returning students, Schrage said. Fourteen firefighters attended, both to monitor and enjoy the event. Students celebrated alongside a DJ blasting music, and the fires smoldered past midnight.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com