The Algiers Holiday Bonfire is a beloved community tradition that kicks off the holiday season in a festive atmosphere of music, food and a giant bonfire on the seawall. And while everyone enjoys the thrill of watching a bonfire burn, few probably have any idea of the planning and passion that goes into building these “bonfire sculptures.”
Among the fire lovers NOLA Burners, who have been designing and building Algiers fire pits for the past seven years. NOLA Burners is a New Orleans-based group that makes the annual trek to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, where the idea is to build something big and then burn it.
They bring a high level of sophistication to the Algiers event, and the bonfire structures are much more than just a pile of wood. Each starts as a concept on paper. Once a design is chosen, exact specifications are determined with the help of a computer program that generates 3D renderings of the design. The computer model helps builders see the bonfire from all sides and creates a plan for the most spectacular burn possible.
“We put a lot of effort into the look and feel, but in the end, it’s more of a performance piece than a sculpture,” said Brennan Steele, a NOLA burner who has built and burned more than 30 bonfire sculptures. “It’s most beautiful when it’s burning.”
Steele handles the technical design work and creates the computer drawings. He said most of the bonfire components are built in a local warehouse and then trucked to the burn site to be fully assembled.
Each year, the bonfire is a unique work of art, said Eric Arvidson, a NOLA burner and bonfire artist who has about 60 bonfire sculptures under his belt. He is responsible for creating the concept and theme of each bonfire in Algiers. This year’s is a nod to the traditional pyramid-style bonfires built along the levees of river parishes upriver from New Orleans for Christmas Eve celebrations. This bonfire will be nearly three stories tall, the tallest ever built for this event. This, he said, is about a big fire.
“We’re putting a modern spin on old-school design,” Arvidson said. “We’re covering the outside with chevron patterns and different designs, so it looks like more than just stacked logs.”
Arvidson and Steele are frequent collaborators, and together they have built and burned more than 20 campfire sculptures. Some of them have been transported to the Nevada desert before being burned. They do this with the help of a small team of “burners” who get the same satisfaction from building something and then watching it burn.
In previous years, on the Algiers Pier, they built and burned a replica Victorian house, a 20-foot-tall Louisiana cutout and a giant Christmas pyramid. Last year’s bonfire was a two-story candle.
“People always ask me if I regret seeing my work burn,” Arvidson said. “I feel a real sense of satisfaction when I finally see him collapse and there’s nothing left.”
The annual Algiers bonfire and free concert is scheduled for Saturday, December 3 at the Algiers Point Pier. The event will feature an expanded festive art market, more food vendors than ever before, and the biggest bonfire this festival has ever seen. Festival organizers have extended the time by an hour to accommodate those who went to bed earlier.
It’s the perfect way to ring in the holiday season, said Kelsey Foster, executive director of the Algiers Economic Development Foundation. He said last year’s bonfire had the largest turnout ever and they hope to build on that success.
“We’re going to do a lot of everything this year,” Foster said. “After two years of COVID, and after Hurricane Ida, we feel like we’re finally back on track, and we want to celebrate in a big way.”
Music will be provided by the Young Pinstripe Brass Band and the Edna Karr High School Marching Band. The choir of the Catholic Church of All Saints will sing carols.
More than two dozen local artists and artisans will set up shop at the art market, and a variety of food vendors, all from the West Bank, will offer plenty of options.
Foster recommends that people on the East Bank take the ferry from Algiers across the river to the bonfire because parking at Algiers Point can be difficult. He said the Regional Transit Authority is increasing the ferry’s capacity for the bonfire, but still recommends making sure you’re there as early as possible to see all the music, explore the merchants and food vendors, and watch the sun set behind the city skyline. The exact time they light the bonfire is a secret, so don’t be late.
FIRE OF ALGIERS
when: from 16.30 to 20.00 Saturday 3 December
where: Alger Point at the seawall, approximately 200 Morgan St.
extras: Music, food vendors and over 25 local artists selling their wares.
Bring folding chairs and blankets.
For more information, visit algierseconomic.com/algiersbonfire.