By David Irvin
The Christmas tree is a venerated and respected symbol of Christianity and the holiday season. Not to mention a beacon of joy for children come Christmas day.
But it can also be a fire hazard, officials say.
Local fire departments are spending time and energy to inform those decorating for the holidays on the dangers that may exist and how to avoid them.
“Keep the tree watered,” said Capt. Karen Burns of the Clovis Fire Department said. “A wet tree is a safe tree.”
She said a number of hazards may set the tree ablaze, things such as faulty or broken Christmas lights, space heaters and carelessly-placed candles. But the real danger is a dry tree, which she said can explode into fire.
“If they are going to have a natural tree, check your lights,” she said. “A lot of the fires come from shorts in the electrical lights.”
According to www.christmas-tree.com, which is a collection traditions about the holiday season, the Christmas tree has a 1,000-year association with Christianity that originally began in Germany.
The site tells the story of Saint Boniface, who made it his mission to convert the German people to Christianity. He chastised a group of pagans for worshiping an oak tree and cut it down. To his amazement, a young fir tree sprouted from the place the Oak had stood, an unlikely event he took as a sign of the Christian faith. However, the fir tree was not brought into the house at Christmas time until the 16th century, the site said.
Now that it is in the house, there are a number of precautions that should be taken to keep it from burning.
Residents should make sure to have a working smoke alarm, Burns said. Also, when dispensing of the tree, they should not burn it in the fireplace because the Christmas tree wood will burn at extremely high temperatures.
One area businessman has the solution to the dangers of a dried out Christmas trees: Don’t kill it before putting it in your house.
Joe Whitehead, who co-owns Evergreen Acres Tree Farm, only sells live Christmas trees. For $69 you can buy a 6-foot live pine tree in a red bucket, and after the season is over, plant it in your yard.
“These trees are a lot safer than the cut tree, cause they’re not so brittle. You’d play heck getting these to burn with a light bulb,” he said. “This way it’s living, it’s in your house and then it’s in your yard.”
He said customers have been coming to pick out their trees since August.
Whitehead, who also works as a district conservationist in Portales, said he started planning the Christmas trees in 1986. He said he did not begin selling trees until 1991 to allow them to mature.
Whitehead said he grew up in Los Alamos where residents could go out and cut a fresh tree. He said the Christmas trees for Portales residents were dry and this inspired him to grow Christmas trees.
“My dream was to have people come to the tree farm and cut their own trees,” Whitehead said. “However, they would cut them and take them home then they would dry out. We decided to sell live trees instead.”
He said he doesn’t know of any other individual farmers who grow their own Christmas trees in Roosevelt or Curry County. He said a reason for that is because it is tough to grow trees on the eastern New Mexico plains.
“There is no native tree for the high plains,” Whitehead said. “Trees don’t really belong on the high plains. People have to drip irrigate. In Michigan and Oregon, there are big tree farms because of the amount of rain they usually get.”
He said the trees on his farm grow accustomed to the climate on the high plains and it is because of this reason that they are easy to plant in the backyard after the Christmas holiday.
Bryan Guthals, co-owner of Guthals Nursery, said artificial trees in the marketplace have eroded some of the Christmas tree sales over the last five years. He sells White Fir cut trees and a variety of live trees as well.
“Live tree sales are on the increase,” he said. “Most of ours are still grown in the mountains of New Mexico.”
He offers several suggestions on how to keep safe if choosing to purchase a cut tree.
“Just to make sure it’s fresh when you buy it, that it’s holding its needles and it doesn’t have a drying effect at that point,” he said.
He also said to make sure there is a fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk so the tree continues to draw water.
Burns said you should water a cut tree as much as possible, as much as a jug a day or every other day.
A Wal-mart official from the Portales store said artificial Christmas trees range from $10 to $150 while pine and fur trees range from $19.96 to $39.96. The official said the Christmas trees not sold last year were donated to the Fish and Gaming department.
Allsup’s charges about $20 for trees, according to an official with the convenience store chain.
PNT Staff Writer Tony Parra contributed to this report.