There is a wildly juxtapositional, karmic connection between creating a Christmas tree pyre for a festive, post-holiday celebration while the biggest wildfire in California’s recorded history still creeps its way across Santa Barbara County.

Still, last Friday night’s tree burn was thrilling to witness, as always. And it was a big draw with Valley residents, thousands of whom gathered in a field behind the Mission to see the man-made conflagration.

Some of those at the Friday event expressed concern about the annual to-do because of the Thomas fire’s devastation, when weighed against the entertainment and instructional value of the tree-burning tradition. One Solvang resident had this to say:

“I had mixed feelings because the Thomas fire was so devastating. But here I am. It’s a sight to behold.”

And indeed, it is. The tradition was put on hold last year because of lousy weather. Officials could have done the same this year because of the Thomas fire and the human suffering and loss it has caused.

But in fairness to the tradition itself, there is a point to it — firefighters use the celebration to demonstrate to local residents just how quickly a Christmas tree can disappear in flames. In fact, the bonfire of donated/discarded trees goes up in a matter of minutes. A single tree flares in a matter of seconds, but that is enough to set your home on fire.

That’s the value of such demonstrations, although we’re not certain that aspect of the annual event isn’t completely buried by the wow factor in such an instant blaze.

Fire is fascinating, and it has been since humans progressed to the standing-on-hind-legs period of mankind’s history.

The bonfire also is an expedient method of getting rid of old Christmas trees, which generally outlive their usefulness after a few weeks.

County fire officer Mike Eliason said some trees were deliberately kept away from the pile so they could be lit individually to show how quickly a tree in an individual’s home can go up in flames. Eliason points out that’s why it’s important to keep holiday trees watered and away from open flame.

As much as we like traditions — especially here in this tradition-rich Valley — there are viable alternatives to the annual tree-burning ceremony, and we’ve written about this in years past. Instead of piling up trees and lighting a conflagration, city officials could start a new tradition of turning the discarded trees into mulch.

That could be the ultimate in repurposing. Instead of sending trees up in smoke, turn them into something infinitely more useful, such as mulch to retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature, suppress weed growth, and for just plain-old aesthetics. Mulch can be applied to the soil surface, around trees, paths, flower beds, to prevent soil erosion on slopes, and in production areas for flower and vegetable crops.

We know a few properties around the Valley that could benefit from some beautification, especially if the mulch consisted of repurposed Christmas trees.

It’s just a thought, at a time in our history when we seem to be experiencing some of the nastier effects of climate change, which include lengthy drought episodes followed by ever-more-virulent wildfire seasons.

Mother Nature’s fits of pique, coupled with human negligence produce some truly dreadful outcomes, the Thomas fire simply being the latest example.

We love to be entertained, but we also love being safe.


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