It’s mid-December, a new year is just around the corner, and the Valley is having the same debate it has this time every year — to burn, or not to burn.

The turnout at last January’s annual Christmas tree bonfire at the Mission Santa Ines suggests the popular answer is — burn. Thousands rallied around a huge tree bonfire, without incident, as they have for many years.

It’s difficult to say where the first-of-the-year bonfire tradition got its start, but rest assured it was a very long time ago.

This time around, the bonfire festivities begin at 5 p.m., and should be wrapped up around 7.

Thousands seem to enjoy this tradition, immensely, and a fire department official in a large city in the Northeast believes he knows why: “Because, well, everyone likes to watch a big fire.”

Many Californians probably do not share that belief, especially in recent years. We have been hammered by some of the biggest and most deadly wildfires in this state’s history, and frankly, the Thomas fire late last year was way too close for comfort in our communities.

A letter to the editor we published last week should surprise no one. A local resident pointed out the potential fire danger inherent in a big blaze of any kind, and suggested it is time local elected officials take action to end the bonfire tradition.

We disagree. The tree burn is supervised by the county Fire Department, which takes advantage of the spectacle to educate folks on the very real dangers of Christmas tree fires in the home. A few trees are kept separate from the pile on purpose so they can be lit individually to show how rapidly a tree in an individual’s home can go up in flames. It only takes a few seconds. That’s why it’s important to keep Christmas trees watered and away from heat sources in your home.

Officials also warn onlookers to keep their distance from the burning pile, but that’s easier said than done because a lot of folks want to take photos of the roaring blaze.

There are valid reasons to stay clear, especially if the smoke is barreling your way. Such fire smoke can make you sick. For example, believe it nor not, campfire smoke is one of the major causes of lung cancer found in non-smokers. Besides, you can never be sure all the potentially-toxic, non-organic materials have been stripped from the trees.

Our annual Christmas tree bonfire really presents very little risk, however, in part because it is so closely monitored by public-safety professionals. And the teachable moment about how quickly a dry tree can flare up should not be abandoned.

If the bonfire doesn’t appeal to you, there are alternative ways to dispose of the old tree. The most common use for a discarded tree is to make mulch or compost out of it. In either wood-chip or needle form, mulch is a great way to keep your yard trees healthy and moist during the winter. Pine needles are full of nutrients that enhance the PH of soil, allowing your soil to breathe without becoming dense and compacted. Or maybe we could cut the tree trunks into thin slices and make coasters. Perfect in such a vibrant wine region.

The early-January bonfire is a Solvang tradition, as it is in many other parts of the world, and there is scant evidence that such events pose a wildfire risk. Our advice is — enjoy the show.

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