When I was a kid, I thought they were called Bomb Fires. That was before we moved to the Mississippi Coast where fires on the beach were a regular occurrence.
There was a time when you could drive along Mississippi's Highway 90 in the summertime and were sure to see the dark beach dotted with bonfires. That time is when I was a teenager, when you only needed a simple permit from the local fire department. It seems these days you have to jump through more hoops. After Katrina, several "approved" fire pits popped up on the beach where you can pay to hold a bonfire. Nothing is fun and spontaneous anymore.
This is a picture of me at my 35th high school reunion, with a bunch of jocks who never would've taken a picture with me in 1984, sitting on the community-approved fire pit across from Long Beach's St. Thomas Catholic Church. I assure you our backs were ON FIRE and we were all, SNAP THE PICTURE ALREADY! It's entirely possible the hair over my right shoulder is literally on fire. (Also, try to guess, based on this picture, what the LBHS school color was)
When I was in high school, you could almost always drive down Highway 90 in my hometown of Long Beach on a Friday or Saturday night and find a beach party. Beach parties were different from keg parties in that you are right there out in the open. A cop could drive up any time, so the beer had to be easy to hide. Ice chests in trunks, that sort of thing. Keg parties were almost always held at someone's house out in the country. If they had a barn, even better. The chances of a cop pulling up on that was next to nothing.
My town was small, with only one high school, so you weren't really crashing a party if you stopped in on a beach bonfire to see who was there. If we were even remotely friends-of-friends, we'd find someone to hang with and stay. If we didn't know anyone that well, or if, say, they were a lot older than us - we'd get back in the car and cruise up and down Jeff Davis until we found a better option, or someone who was friendly enough with the party crowd to help us bust in.
The best beach bonfire, though, was the post-holiday bonfire in January. A couple guys in the Class of 85 would spend weeks driving around town, picking up the Christmas trees Long Beach residents had left on the curb. By the time the bonfire came around, the pile of evergreens on the sand was larger than the house I currently live in, and dry as my over-washed hands in a coronavirus pandemic. (I live in a place that is so humid algae grows on my white picket fence. It took me a minute to come up with that simile so give me some credit.)
No accelerant was needed to set those dry Christmas trees ablaze. And trust me when I say that you did not want to be too close to the fire when Brian Dartez and the others lit 'em up. In fact, it's probably better if you stood up there on the seawall. The initial whoosh could've been filmed and sold as special effects for movies. It was truly impressive. To quote the Mississippi comedian Jerry Clower, "Now that's a far!"
Most bonfires are stacked with logs that eventually burn down slowly. When you think of a beach bonfire you don't think of something flat. With the Christmas tree fire, the dry needles and bark burned up almost immediately and the entire pile shifted and settled into place.
We were left with a fire on the sand that was probably 50 or 60 feet in diameter and burned for at least 12 hours. I heard once that it smoldered so hot that Dawn Cooper's contacts melted to her eyes and she had to go to the ER to have them scraped off her eyeballs when she got home and couldn't find them to take them out.
Now days, I guess we use discarded Christmas trees for more worthy endeavors, like rebuilding the Louisiana wetlands. But I do miss that Christmas tree bonfire.