Crowd enjoys big bonfire to renew tradition after last year’s cancellation

By Mike Chaldu

Unlike last year, when major storms and resultant flooding caused cancellation of the event, crowds were able to gather this month at Mission Santa Ines in Solvang for the annual Christmas Tree Burn.

The burn, which signals the end of the city’s month-and-a-half long Julefest and the holiday season in general, went off without a hitch on Friday, Jan. 5, on the lawn across the parking lot from the mission.

“It’s great to have this back,” said Jenny McClurg, Solvang Parks and Rec director. “It was disappointing to have to cancel it last year, but the weather has cooperated and everyone seems to be having a good time.”

The Parks and Rec Department provided games to be played before the burn, and attendees were able to get some eats from the food truck belonging to Rudy’s Mexican Restaurant in Buellton.

Those arriving at dusk to the mission grounds were met with a sizable pile of discarded Christmas trees, a pile that was still being added to as the Santa Barbara County Fire Department personnel from Station 30 arrived to conduct the burn.

A Santa Barbara County Fire firefighter lights a small group of trees as a fire-safety demonstration before the Christmas Tree Burn at Mission Santa Ines. Photo by Mike Chaldu/SYVS

Joe and Sharon Filipko were awaiting the show along with their grandchildren Vienna Cervantes, 6; and her sisters Lola, 4; and Santina, 18 months. They were standing near the big pile of trees they contributed to a few minutes earlier.

“We live right across the street, so we just dragged the tree over and added it to the pile,” said Sharon Filipko. “We’re all pretty excited, the kids especially, after having to miss it last year.”

Another person who added to the pile of trees was Jesse Van Noy, who brought his all the way down from Avila Beach, coming with some friends to enjoy the fiery spectacle to come.

“We try to get down here for this as many times as we can; I think I’ve been to two or three of these so far,” he said. “I’m glad to be here; I think it’s a really good thing they put on.”

Van Noy was able to get his tree up near the top of the pile, although he needed a couple of tries for it to stick up there.

“Hey, those things are heavier than they look,” he said.

The burn also brought in attendees who were from out of town, some of whom didn’t know it was happening until hearing about when they were in town.

Amanda Meadows of Orange County came in with her husband Jake, children Autumn, 9; Silas, 7; Winnie, 5; and Sadie, 1; and Amanda’s grandparents (from Sacramento) Justin and Judy Petsas.

“We came up to visit and found out about this,” Amanda said as they waited for the sun to go down and the burn to commence. “We’ve been enjoying the area; we took the kids to the Santa Barbara Zoo, and I got to meet Monty Roberts [the Solvang horse trainer and owner/operator of Flag Is Up Farms]. I’m really into riding horses, so that was the highlight of the trip for me.”

The tree burn was a great topper to the trip, the kind of event the family never thought they’d come across.

“We don’t have anything like this where we live,” Jake Meadows said. “We just leave the tree on our curb for the trash guys to pick up and be done with it.”

While the burn was an unforeseen attraction for the Meadows and the Petsases, for the Molina family of Ventura, it was a destination.

Gabriel and Blanca Molina made the trip up to the Valley with their children Gabrielle, 17; Matthew, 7; and Adeline, 2.

“We decided to take a day trip; went to the Santa Barbara museums, and then continued it up here,” said Gabriel Blanca. “We come to Solvang quite a bit and love to visit the downtown, and we decided to check out this event for the first time.”

The program began with a ceremonial (and respectful) flag-burning conducted by the Boy Scout Troop 41, who cut up the worn flag before tossing the pieces into a small fire pit.

After that, the county firefighters gave a fire-safety demonstration, explaining the dangers a dry Christmas tree can pose and then lighting up three trees set up apart from the big pile to show just how fast a tree fire can ignite and spread.

After that, it was time for the main event.

The firefighters went slowly around the pile of trees lighting strategic spots along the bottom of the heap, and in no time at all the flames started shooting up into the sky amid the “oohs” and “aahs” of the crowd. The onlookers also gradually backed away from the pile as the heat got progressively more intense.

As the fire settled to a steady burn, Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Andrew Wedel, who’s been with the department for 17 years — seven of them with Station 30 — could be pleased with another successful burn.

“Very pleased with how this turned out, and pleased with the crowd,” Wedel said. “We do this partly to show how careful you have to be with the trees and fire, but it’s also a time for the community to get together and have a good time, and we’ve had that tonight.”

Wedel estimated that the fire would burn out by “about 8:30 or 9 p.m.,” which would have meant two and a half or three hours since the fire was started just before 6 p.m.

As far as the aim of educating people about fire dangers, Wedel felt that part of the event has been a success.

“We haven’t had to answer a call about a tree catching on fire this year, and we haven’t had much at all over the past few years,” Wedel said. “So, I guess the people are listening.”