Gerrit Swam grabbed a handful of Old Glory Tuesday, pulled it over a raging fire and stepped back as it burst into flames.

The 14-year-old Santa Rosa Boy Scout wasn't protesting anything. He wasn't trying to desecrate the American flag.

He and other scouts were practicing the time-honored tradition of "retiring" worn or tattered flags in what has been deemed the most dignified way possible.

"The flames push the flag up," Swam said after torching the faded four-by-eight-foot banner in a pit of burning cord wood. "It's hard to get the flag in it."

Scouts and organizers from the Sons of the American Legion in Healdsburg had their work cut out for them in the special ceremony behind Windsor Fire Station No. 2.

More than 200 flags collected over the past few years from residents, business owners and government officials awaited destruction.

They were piled high on a long table as firefighters stoked a metal burn pit with pieces of oak. Scouts unfolded the flags and, holding them by the both ends, walked them one by one over the flames, tossing them in.

They snapped to attention along with firefighters and legion members until each banner was no longer recognizable.

Cotton flags went quickly and cleanly. Those made of synthetic material sent up plumes of thick black smoke.

"We ask them to contemplate the meaning of flag during the salute," said Mike Polkinghorn, scout master for Troop No. 134 in northern Santa Rosa.

Polkinghorn said burning or burying is allowed under the U.S. flag code. But he said buried flags can be dug up and a separate plot is required for each one.

"Burning is more final," said fellow scout master David Shenton of Troop No. 707. "And it seems much more ceremonial."

<NO1>The flags came mostly from Healdsburg and Windsor. Legion commander Tom Grimes said his unit had been saving up for several years. Scouts walked neighborhoods looking for more and people who read about the burn in the newspaper turned them in.

<NO>The oldest was a 48-star flag from the 1950s. Many were torn or frayed. One had an anarchy symbol scrawled on it with a black pen. A brand-new flag in the bunch was donated to the fire department.

The rest were burned under authority of the flag code, which establishes regulations for the display and care of the American flag. Among other things, it requires flags that have become ripped, dirty or otherwise defaced be disposed of.

"It is the American flag," said fire engineer Tom Rathbun, who organized the event and is a former Eagle Scout. "When it becomes worn it's time to replace it."