The Solvang City Council has rejected a push to extinguish the community’s traditional Christmas tree burn, the culmination of the weeks-long Julefest celebration.

On Monday night, council members voted unanimously to allow the tree burn to continue in 2020 and beyond.

The Christmas tree burn, involving a huge pile of trees deposited by local residents, takes place on the first Friday night in January at Mission Santa Ines. It also serves as a fire safety demonstration hosted by Santa Barbara County firefighters. 

Last year in the days after the Thomas Fire, some residents questioned whether the controlled burn posed a danger to the community or was appropriate due the tragic blazes, with a few residents renewing worries this year.

“I don’t see any problem with keeping it actually,” Councilman Daniel Johnson said Monday.

“It’s one of my favorite events; it brings people together,” Councilman Robert Clarke added.

Councilwoman Karen Waite noted that the tree burn has been a tradition in Solvang since 1989.

Additionally, the event has never been raised as a potentially hazardous condition by the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District board, Waite said, adding that she checked with Solvang council members who served before her.

“It’s a one-time-a-year event,” she added. “I do think that it’s part of our Julefest, and I think it should remain.”

Mayor Ryan Toussaint added that his research revealed leaf blowers likely do more damage that the tree burn, while Councilman Chris Djernaes did not comment, but backed the motion.

The former Solvang Fire Department originally started the tradition because residents burned trees in fireplaces, sparking chimney fires, according to Parks and Recreation Director Fred Lageman.

“So they wanted a public tree burning in a safe place,” Lageman said. 

In March 2011, the city of Solvang and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, which provides firefighting services in the community, agreed to co-sponsor the two-hour event, which includes live music and refreshments. 

“It certainly helps extend the holiday season and wrap it up as a community event,” said Tracy Farhad, executive director for the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau.

The tree burn is touted as “something very uniquely Solvang,” she added.

This year’s tree burn attracted 2,000 visitors, who also saw a flag burning ceremony conducted by the local Boy Scouts.

“It’s a great opportunity for the scouts and for the community to see and understand the respect that is required when you retire a flag,” Scoutmaster David Watkins told the council. “It’s one of those events we’d like to see continue for that purpose. 

“I think it’s great exposure for the boys, and I think it’s a great exposure for the community to understand what is a proper flag retirement ceremony,” Watkins added.

Speakers Monday night supported the tradition continuing, but opponents have sent emails to council members.

“Could there not be a more irresponsible government sponsored/supported event to add more miserable smoke-related pollutants into our South Coast air,” asked Santa Barbara resident Andrew Bermant. 

Instead, he said, Solvang should hold a Christmas tree mulching celebration called the “Annual Return to Nature Christmas Tree Celebration,” demonstrating safe mulching techniques.”

In early December, Peg Pinard, former San Luis Obispo mayor who also served on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, criticized the tree burn.

“It is time to change the tradition away from fire as being a means of ‘celebration,” Pinard wrote.

On Monday night, Solvang resident Hank Homburg, a retired Santa Barbara city firefighter, spoke in favor of the burn, adding he had 13 guests ranging from ages 3 to mid-60s at his house for dinner before they went to the tree burn.

“It’s all encompassing and everybody said the same thing — how great it was, that it was a real family event, and brings the community together,” Homberg said. “They were all from Santa Barbara and they trek up here every year for it.”

— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at