First responders will torch a boat to ring in the New Year

It might sound a little unusual, but local first responders will torch a boat this New Year’s to raise money to support families and people going through mental health or substance use challenges.

The evening of Dec. 31, crews from South King Fire & Rescue and the Des Moines Police Department will host the city’s first Burning Boat Festival, with ticket proceeds for the event going to local nonprofit healthcare provider Valley Cities.

Why torch a boat? The ritual — which in this case will involve a dry wood vessel built specifically for the event — has roots in cultures around the world, including Scotland and China. Boat burning festivals tend to signify the end of something (in this case, the year), the idea of letting go of old pains and grudges, and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

And anyone who has sat by a fire knows that the crackling flames can be therapeutic. Witnessing a hearth or campfire lowers blood pressure and induces relaxation, according to a 2014 study by the University of Alabama’s Department of Anthropology.

The organizers of the Burning Boat Festival plan to extend the therapeutic benefits further, by raising awareness of mental health and substance abuse disorders. Valley Cities, which benefits from the event, provides in- and outpatient treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, and support services for kids, adults and families in King County.

The evening begins at the Beach Park Event Center (22030 Cliff Ave. S.) at 6 p.m. It is family friendly, with propane fire pits, s’mores and hot cocoa, the public safety agencies said.

The boat itself will be constructed in such a way as to minimize the environmental effects from being burned, and the agencies will observe safety measures. The agencies are working with students from Maritime High School in Des Moines to construct the vessel.

Attendees are asked to write a wish, or a goal, or perhaps something that held them back this year, which they want to let go of. The notes will all be tossed into the boat, which will itself be set ablaze at midnight as the new year begins.

To purchase tickets, visit To donate directly, text ‘Burn’ to 53555. For event updates, visit