Hundreds of discarded Christmas trees went up in flames Friday night at Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang, symbolically burning the remains of 2018 and casting a warm light on hopes for the new year.

A crowd estimated at more than a thousand people began gathering well before 5 p.m. in the vacant field in front of the mission, where pines and firs left by residents throughout the week formed a pile about 60 feet wide and some 20 feet high.

Even as people streamed in on foot, pickup trucks continued to deliver trees, some of them offloaded by Fred Lageman, director of the Solvang Parks & Recreation Department, which coordinates the annual Christmas Tree Burn.

As spectators formed a ring about 50 feet from the edges of the pile and queued up for snacks and drinks at vendors along the perimeter of the lot, firefighters from Santa Barbara County Fire Department’s Station 30 in Solvang began setting up individual trees at strategic points around the pile.

The burn is not only a spectacle, a way for people to rid themselves of their Christmas trees and a climax to Solvang’s month-long Julefest events, but it’s also a striking visual demonstration of just how fast a tree can ignite and a potent reminder to be fire safe.

Firefighter Alex Babcock, one of the firefighters there to monitor the burn and safely ignite the pile, was preparing a torch used to light controlled burns.

“It’s a mix of diesel and gas,” said Babcock, a veteran of the Christmas Tree Burn, as he lit a small spot of liquid on the ground, then used that to light the torch. “Three parts diesel to one part gas.”

Mike Eliason, a public information officer for County Fire, welcomed the crowd to the 31st annual event and offered tips on Christmas tree safety as firefighters, some using flares, ignited the free-standing trees.

“Always get fresh-cut trees and keep them watered,” he said, as each tree became a roaring torch within seconds.

Oooohs and aaaahs went up from the crowd as flames consumed each one.

“Isn’t that amazing?” one woman said to her friend in the crowd. “Look how fast it goes!”

Then Eliason gave the order to light the pile, and within minutes it was a roaring inferno, flames climbing twice the height of the pile, throwing off intense radiant heat.

“It’s a lot like Whos in Whoville,” Eliason said. “Everyone moves up close, and then it gets going and everyone backs off.”

Spectators got a first-hand look at one of the phenomena that went viral during the devastating Camp fire in Northern California when a dust devil was suddenly born right next to the blazing pile. It showed how the combination of raging flames and cool moist air can create a spinning mass that reaches high into the air.

“Look at that,” a man in the crowd said. “You can really see how the embers go up. They’re just sucked right up.”

As the 60-foot-tall dust devil raced toward the crowd, it suddenly dissipated.

“Wow!” a young spectator exclaimed. “That was scary!”

As the tree needles popped and crackled in the flames, a DJ provided the soundtrack to the burn with a series of appropriate songs — “Fire Burning on the Dance Floor” by Sean Kingston, “Feeling Hot Hot Hot” by the Merrymen, Jimi Hendrix’s “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire” and the Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

Jackson and Marki Jonas of Santa Barbara, who said they were attending their first Christmas Tree Burn, danced along, their eyes glowing in the firelight.

“I had to see it for myself,” Jackson said. “I heard some people saying they were against it, you know, after the Thomas fire, but I think it’s awesome. That’s one epic bonfire.”

He whirled and called out to the people behind him, “Hey, anybody got any marshmallows? Ha ha haaaa!”

Turning back, he continued, “But seriously, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

“Yeah,” Marki added. Look at all the firemen and fire engines. And the sparks aren’t really going very far. It’s a straight-up spectacle.”

At the edge of the field, Mike Daniels of Ballard sat on the split rail fence with his wife as his 7-year-old daughter danced around.

“Been here my whole life,” he said, admitting this was the first time he’d been to a Christmas Tree Burn. “When you live here, you tend to avoid things like this.”

He said he came to this one because of his daughter, who wanted to see it and seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Among the people who spread blankets and set up beach chairs north of the burning pile, a woman who would only identify herself as Victoria said she’s been coming to the Christmas Tree Burn for 10 years — except the year it was canceled by rain, which “greatly disappointed” her.

She said she usually comes alone because her husband hates crowds, but this year she was also herding five children, ages 9 to 12, not all of them hers, and as she talked she made sure they didn’t stray too far away.

“I’ve also got a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old here somewhere,” she said scanning the crowd. “All girls, none of them mine. I worry way more about them than I do the fire.

“I’m a tree-hugger,” she added. “You’d think I’d object to all this fire and smoke and ashes, not environmentally recycling all those trees. But this is just plain fun, and it’s only once a year.

“I mean, where else can you experience something like this? Feel the power of a rare element of nature — one you would normally run from. No place I know.”

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News Editor

Mike Hodgson is news editor at the Santa Ynez Valley News, where he writes about local government, special events and the people who live in the Valley. He has been a photographer, writer, news editor and managing editor at weekly newspapers since 1972

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