- One dozen (or more) old wood palettes (the drier the wood, the better)
- A lake with 18" of ice on top of it
- A hefty quantity of kerosene, lighter fluid, and/or white gas (>1 gallon)
- Three times as many roman candles as there are people in your party
- One fire dance volunteer
- Optional, but recommended: additional fireworks of various sorts
The first time my family did this, the temperature outside was pushing -40. At that point, Fahrenheit and Celsius meet on the thermometer and part ways again. Steam pours in from the outside whenever a door or window is cracked open, and one's beard—if you're fortunate enough to have built-in chin-sulation—glazes over with ice almost immediately. We were out on the lake ice for all of a half hour that year, wrapped in layers: the bonfire couldn't keep the cold from eating through our mittens, and we found out the hard way that bic lighters aren't efficient in temperatures where water freezes the moment it hits the ground.
In luckier years when the weather was warmer (above 0°F), we gave ourselves the opportunity to experiment a little with the construction and ignition of the bonfire. The 10-foot structure was assembled so that it would collapse from the inside, with the outer walls folding together when the integrity of the palettes gave way. Roman candles were a better option for lighting the tinder than approaching it with a miniature Kalashnikov barbecue lighter (we have both). With the whole stack soaked in white gas or kerosene (or old gasoline, which sadly didn't work one year), I would've risked singeing my eyebrows by being anywhere within ten feet. Ignition technique started with the roman candles, and we've yet to find a better alternative.
Because of the midnight sun, Alaska doesn't see many fireworks for Independence Day, and people like to double-up for the darker skies of New Year's Eve. My family is still new to the scene, but our longtime friends and neighbors are lake mainstays, and their night display is always a highlight. Most of us are content to settle for two dozen mortars, a fountain, and a few other pyro-knickknacks, but our friends keep their arrays going like clockwork for the minutes leading up to the main countdown, with extra fire features scattered between launches.
Every burn of every year is followed by the same discussion: what went well, and what could be improved. The inaugural year of the roman candle ignition was met with high-fives and cheers, but the palettes remained intact during the year of old gasoline, and we promised to never half-ass our fuel choice again. This year went off without a hitch, and the improvements we'd made to the process were small, but effective.
And next year, we're going to attempt ignition with a carefully-placed mortar. The roman candles are on their way out.
Happy New Year!