To visitors, Solvang might conjure up images of drinking wine, dancing at Danish Days or visiting the Hans Christian Andersen museum. This year, however, there's even more to do in in the small Santa Ynez Valley town because locals last week began celebrating their centennial, which began last Friday night with a massive bonfire that drew hundreds of spectators.
The fire is actually a longtime annual event where residents, and even some travelers from afar, haul their Christmas trees into a large pile. Large, as in some 500 trees.
"The idea is to safely get rid of the trees and discourage someone from burning their tree at home," said David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, explaining that other options like curbside pickup are also available. Before firefighters light the bonfire, they do demonstrations to educate residents on how fast a tree can catch fire and spread, especially when chemical treatments are applied.
Rosminah Brown, who shared the photos on this post (more can be seen on her Flickr page) heard about the event on a local website and drove from the Santa Barbara area to check it out. "It was well attended by families, children of all ages, and thanks to the expert guidance of fire officials, everyone felt completely safe," she said. "The kids absolutely loved it, and you could feel their excited energy to be able to participate and watch the immense fire rise up. And being the wintertime, it was like one big cozy up around the fireside."
The event, billed as "the largest fire safety demonstration and community gathering on the Central Coast," began around 50 years ago when Solvang's fire department was run by volunteers. They would take their Christmas trees and burn it in a field across the street from the fire station, according to Dwight Pepin, the former volunteer Chief who now works as a Captain for the county. Over the years, more and more people would bring their trees, when eventually it got so big it became an event in front of Old Mission Santa Ines.
Pepin said he's only heard one environmentally-related complaint about the event, but Char Miller, the Director of environmental studies at Pomona College (and a KCET commenter), had his concerns. "That totally blows my mind," he exclaimed. He said that while it's a one-off deal, meaning it's not that bad in terms of green house gases, it could be a major problem for trees with unnatural treatments. When those burn, not only is carbon released into the air, but also chemicals.
Miller did give a nod to longtime tradition, which for Solvang relates to the Danish 12 days of Christmas, but was still wary. "We live in a different time and in Southern California."
The event, however, does fall under state law. "There's been a longtime exemption in the health and safety code for open outdoor fires for human enjoyment like campfires and festive bonfires," said Terry Dressler, the director of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. Additionally, burning conducted by a public agency for fire safety training is allowed, "although you don't need to burn that many trees to get your point across," he added.
Nonetheless, Dressler said his agency understands it's part of a tradition that adds to Solvang's mystique, and will not step in unless it becomes a public nuisance.
For Pepin, the former Chief, it's a quite a community experience. "If you haven't seen it other than the pictures, it's really amazing."