By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. — State and local governments would be prohibited from banning live Christmas trees in churches under a bill two Republican lawmakers began circulating Tuesday even as fire officials sounded warnings about how quickly trees can ignite.
Several municipal fire departments have banned live trees in churches in recent years despite provisions in national fire safety guidelines that allow them if adequate safeguards exist, according to a news release from Rep. Jesse Kremer of Kewaskum and Sen. Stephan Nass of Whitewater.
“(Fire officials) are blatantly relieving themselves of any authorized discretion when it comes to allowing the safe display of natural cut Christmas trees in church sanctuaries during the Christmas season,” Kremer said. “This bill would ensure that this long-standing tradition can safely continue.”
The National Fire Protection Association’s guidelines call for banning live Christmas trees in places where 50 people or more gather. But the guidelines also allow limited quantities of combustible vegetation if local fire officials decide adequate safeguards are in place. The guidelines don’t define the safeguards. The state has adopted the guidelines as administrative rules.
Under the bill, the state Department of Public Safety and Professional Standards as well as municipal governments would be forbidden from passing any rules or ordinances prohibiting the seasonal placement of Christmas trees in the state Capitol rotunda or in a church. Trees in the rotunda and churches would be presumed to be safe during fire inspections, stripping inspectors of their ability to remove the trees.
Kremer said he drew up the bill after fire departments in Kewaskum and Jackson started warning churches to transition away from live Christmas trees.
Jay Shambeau, chairman of St. Lucas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kewaskum, said Fire Chief Mark Groeschel has warned the church this is their last year with a live tree. The ban would mean the end of a long tradition at the church, Shambeau said.
“They like the history and smell of a real tree,” Shambeau said of the congregation. “We do feel like we have safeguards in place. We water the tree. We have it in a safe place. We feel we’re not putting our members in harm’s way.”
Groeschel didn’t immediately return a voicemail message.
Chuck Ruetten, fire marshal with the Jackson Fire Department, said he started warning the five churches in his jurisdiction that they couldn’t have live trees in 2010. They’ve all since transitioned to artificial trees, he said, adding people don’t realize how quickly dry Christmas trees can go up.
“We’re here to protect and prevent,” Ruetten said. “This is a fire hazard. I just envision a church full of people holding candles and a 15-foot Christmas tree, ready to go. It just gets down to safety.”
Kremer and Nass sent out an email to their fellow lawmakers Tuesday asking for co-sponsors to sign on by Dec. 30. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has already thrown his support behind the measure, including a statement in the two legislator’s news release saying the bill would keep the Christmas spirit alive.
“The last thing we need is for bureaucrats to play the Grinch in every church in Wisconsin at Christmas,” Vos said.
Scott Wegner, president of the Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association, said municipalities have to follow the guidelines. He said Kremer and Nass should have addressed this issue well before the holiday season.
“Safety is paramount,” Wegner said. “I’m pretty sure (the municipalties aren’t) out there to mess with Christmas. To release a bill like this now is a bit like Scrooge.”