WVU takes credit for couch-burning craze that has caught fire at UK , other campuses

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comMarch 28, 2012 

University of Kentucky's epic winning basketball season has made one thing clear: there are two kinds of people in this world, those who see a couch and think "Fire!" and those who don't.

Following the Wildcats' win over Baylor on Sunday, Lexington fire officials reported at least 12 smoldering sofas in neighborhoods around campus. And to them it's more than a harmless prank.

How did this craze catch fire?

Corey Colyer, interim chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University, said he and his colleagues have thought about this an awful lot. That's because WVU in Morgantown has the dubious distinction of being considered the couch-burning capital of college campuses.

So ingrained is the ritual that the student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, published a pro-couch burning column last fall. It proposed a university sponsored and controlled event with furniture conflagrations at its center.

"It would show the rebellious montani semper liberi (Mountaineers are always free) spirit that defines Appalachia, but within a more modern and safety-conscious framework," the writer explained. It didn't happen. But the proposal reflects just how proudly the couch burning mantle is worn.

"Where Greatness is Learned and Couches are Burned" is a T-shirt slogan available on the Princeton, W.Va., Web site PlayLikeYourCouchisonFire.com, (Plus other gems like: "Beer: Helping white men dance since 1862.")

Couch burning, dumpster burning and general flaming of furniture, is indeed part of many campus cultures, Colyer said. He believes it springs from what sociologists call "opportunity structure" or, in this case, "the availability of stuff to burn and the reason to burn it."

The couch-burning trend in Morgantown goes back to a time when a rule requiring a mandatory residential trash pick-up contract wasn't enforced, he explained. In student neighborhoods where the population comes and goes, trash piled up. Burning it provided both a celebration and a service. When officials cracked down on trash contracts, requiring those without them to appear in court, the number of fires went down, Colyer said.

Another element comes into play, too, he said. It's 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, he said.)

No one has traced the path of couch burning but it has undoubtedly spread. Michigan State University is home to an ultimate frisbee club called The Burning Couches. There are YouTube postings of couch fires at Baylor University, Santa Clara University, and the University of California Santa Barbara.

But clearly, the torch isn't lit only for post-game celebrations. Couches burn not only when teams win but when they lose. When Osama bin Laden died, a good number of college couches died with him. When Joe Paterno was fired, Penn State students fired up some sofas.

When will the trend be extinguished? Lexington Fire Battalion Chief Ed Davis said couch burning has been around for as long as he can remember. Stories in the Herald-Leader archives don't mention it in connection with UK celebrations until 2007. Urban County Councilwoman Diane Lawless, whose district includes the couch burning hot spot at Elizabeth and State streets, said she doesn't recall hearing much about it until around 2009.

But both Lawless and Davis agree the spark has been lit locally. And getting a fire truck through narrow residential streets and through a drunken crowd isn't easy, Davis said. At one call last year, students threw bottles at firefighters.

UK and local city officials held a news conference Wednesday promising stepped-up enforcement this weekend when the Cats play in the Final Four to help squelch the yearn to burn.

Based on what's happened in Morgantown, it may take awhile.

Morgantown Police Chief Ed Peterson said the community of 30,000, which once had 200 celebratory fires in a day, has mounted a comprehensive approach to put out the flames. Starting last fall, not only is couch burning now prosecuted as a felony, but landlords and university officials have banded with the police to make it possible for a firestarter to also be expelled from school and be evicted, he said.

Also, a WVU student was both badly burned last year at a couch fire and cited for starting the fire.

This "holistic approach" has put a significant damper on the fires, he said. The ample evidence, thanks to student-produced videos on YouTube and Facebook, makes it a little easier to identify those who persist, he said. But, it's a long-term process, he said.

"We're combatting the perception that this is a party place and that (this activity) is tolerated," he said.

So, if Morgantown is any example, this weekend some couches will die.

According to Heather Hise, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries, it's hard to tell whether there has been a run on couches-as-tinder in the run-up to the big game. As Goodwill gets furniture in, it generally goes out.

In the wake of the UK couch burning, a lot of people have joked that they have some furniture they'd like to see go up in flames. Bring it on down to Goodwill, she said. They can't be responsible for what happens to it after that.

"We sell to anyone."

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: bluegrassmoms.com

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