On New Year’s Eve, a three-mile ring of fire will bloom in the winter darkness along the horseshoe-shaped beach of Birch Bay.
The Ring of Fire and Hope, now in its ninth year, is made up of 1,500 red flares on the beach, all lit at once after a horn sounds at 7 p.m. Dec. 31.
Anyone can participate. People can bring their own flare, or arrive early and get one from Mike Kent, the Birch Bay Realtor who created the event. He and his wife, Rose, will have 500 free flares to hand out to adults outside the Birch Bay Chamber’s visitors center, 7900 Birch Bay Drive, next to CJ’s Beach House restaurant.
People with flares need to be on the beach and ready before the horn sounds at the stroke of 7, signaling time to light the flares.
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Kent expects 3,000 to 4,000 people will spread themselves along the beach’s high-tide line. He encourages people to get their flares early, because Whatcom County stores might sell out of the no-spike road flares that burn entirely and leave no residue behind.
Rose Kent says she appreciates the beauty of the event. “It’s glowing, it’s pulsing, it’s peaceful, that continuous line of fire,” she says. “You’re in awe of the silence.”
Her husband shares her sentiment.
“It’s a diffused red light reflected in the water,” he says. “It’s prettiest when you’re looking down the beach as well as along the water. You see all these groups, all these families. Each flare puts out a red hue 20 feet in diameter; multiply that by more than a thousand. The best part is the light’s reflection on the faces of the people. They’re happy. Some are arm-in-arm. ”
The Kents got the idea a decade ago when they visited Rose’s family in Rochester, N.Y., and heard about an event featuring flares around a lake there. Mike Kent, a board member of Birch Bay’s Chamber of Commerce, thought it would be perfect for Birch Bay’s gently sloping beach.
“We’d donate the flares,” he said. “We could build a tradition, give families and neighbors a chance to come together and celebrate the year.”
The first Ring of Fire and Hope was in 2005 turning into 2006.
“It’s become a popular event, partly because of the serenity,” Mike Kent says. “All you hear is the hissing of flares, which gives a unique ambiance. You see generations of family huddled around flares. People start chatting.”
Some people use the event to memorialize loved ones. Others enjoy trying to outdo neighboring groups in their number of flares.
“It’s getting to be a competition,” Mike Kent says. “There’s flare envy!”
The Ring of Fire and Hope, coupled with Birch Bay’s polar bear plunge at noon on New Year’s Day, turns Birch Bay into a two-day destination for the holidays.
“Birch Bay comes together over this,” Kent says. “It just keeps growing. ... It’s so simple to organize; we expect it to continue into perpetuity now.”