More than a dozen people were sprayed with a fire hose Sunday night attempting to prevent firefighters from putting out a North Douglas bonfire.
Witnesses estimated 100 to 200 people were present throughout the evening at the large fire on city land across North Douglas Highway from the False Outer Point parking lot.
Police said local parents asked them to check out the gathering, which witnesses said included drinking. Firefighters said they were told by police the blaze was spreading.
Officers arrived about 8:30 p.m. and over the next few hours repeatedly asked the crowd to disperse. Two fire trucks and an ambulance arrived about 11 p.m. and firefighters began spraying water and fire retardant foam on the fire.
Gwen Place, 21, said firefighters were not targeting people, but celebrants refused to leave and stood in front of the blaze.
"I got wet, but some people got soaked - dripping wet and shivering," Place said.
Angela Milligan, 15, watched as a people joined hands and circled the fire.
"They were yelling 'Keep it alive, save the fire,'" she said. "The hose squirted up over the people onto the fire. Then people were jumping in front the hose, into the water."
Place and others said the Labor Day weekend bonfire has been an annual event in North Douglas for the past five years. A large wooden man is built each year and burned in effigy, similar to the Burning Man, an annual counterculture event in the northern Nevada desert. Place said the crowd included families earlier in the evening. John Ingalls, 57, said four or five cords of wood were burning when he arrived about 10 p.m.
"The fire was pretty spectacular at that time," Ingalls said. "It was pretty big. There was a police car there with a spotlight on the man in the fire. Another cop car showed up and a bunch of younger kids dispersed - about 40 people left."
Over the course of the next hour the situation escalated, witnesses said.
"People were pretty much into starting a riot. It was a bunch of angry people. (Police) were trying to do their job," Milligan said. "People were so riled up. A bunch of people were drunk."
Ingalls said about 60 people watched as a dozen people resisted firefighters' attempts to put out the fire.
"People were yelling at them, giving them the finger, blocking the cops," Ingalls said. "I didn't see any malice on the part of the cops at all or the fire department."
"When they got the fire down to the point where they could get close to it, they came in and started pulling it apart," he said. "As the firemen were pulling the logs out of the fire, people were putting them back in. Then another truck sprayed some kind of foam on it. They ran out of foam and water and they took off."
Police Capt. Tom Porter said today he didn't think any arrests were made Sunday night.
"After looking at it and receiving some complaints, we notified the fire department and they extinguished the fire," he said.
Mike Fenster, division chief for Capital City Fire and Rescue, said the fire department records indicate police called firefighters, saying a bonfire had spread to the woods. Firefighters found the bonfire was contained in an empty lot, and police at the scene requested the bonfire be extinguished.
Fenster said burn permits are not required for campfires or barbecues. But Porter said a burn permit is required for any fire on city property. A beach fire might be different, depending on where it is, he said, but this fire was not on the beach.
Ingalls brought his camper to North Douglas and spent the night. He said after authorities left people restarted the fire.
"I woke up about 3 a.m. and the fire was raging again. It was really beautiful."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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