“How do you connect the dots between your team and my team winning a big game, to picking up something and throwing it at a first responder to kill or injure them?” said Tenant. “How do you connect those two events? I can’t.”
According to Tenant, the fire-setting tradition started at WVU in the mid-1970s when, following a win over rival University of Pittsburgh, students lit bonfires all along University Avenue. Since then, the fires have become more prevalent and dangerous. The riot earlier this month was the fifth declared riot in the last 20 years.
Tenant says that a mob mentality seems to take over among students after big football and basketball games. Along with stepping up law enforcement efforts to penalize students who start these fires, he believes there has to be a change in the university’s cultural mindset, so that students no longer regard couch-burning and throwing beer bottles as “cool” behavior.
Kelsey Pape, a former WVU student who recently graduated, agrees. She was a victim of malicious burning last year when her car was set on fire. The damage to her car cost $2,000 to fix, Pape says.
“Who wants to be known as the school that burns couches?” Pape says. “It’s embarrassing.”
Tenants says students will allow such fires to occur until the behavior becomes unacceptable to the larger community. In the meantime, he says, the Morgantown fire and police department needs to expand its capability to deal with the fires and rioting students. The Morgantown Fire Department has only added one person to its staff since 1967, he says. Yet since that time, the student population at WVU has grown from around 12,000 to approximately 30,000 students.
“We’re going to have to look at expanding services here if we keep having these types of events,” Tenant says.