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Another Cut for Cut Trees

New fire codes prohibit cut trees in buildings with no sprinkler system.

The Grinch is alive and well for apartment and multi-family condominium dwellers in Fairfax County this Christmas season. No natural cut trees will be allowed unless the building has a sprinkler system.

That's the effect of a major change in the International Fire Code adopted by the Virginia General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Mark Warner. It became effective Oct. 1.

According to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, "The code bans natural cut trees in areas of assembly, educational facilities, institutional, mercantile, hotels and motels, apartments and condos, unless the buildings are protected by an approved automatic sprinkler system."

The department also noted, "Natural cut trees are banned without exception from institutional and adult care and assisted living facilities regardless of an approved sprinkler system. The code change does not apply to living trees with root balls wrapped in burlap."

THIS CHANGE in the code, which is applicable statewide, does not impact the use of natural cut trees in single-family detached homes, duplexes, or townhouses. Letters of notice are being sent to hotel/motel owners and apartment building managers advising them of the change, said Daniel L. Schmidt, public information officer for the department.

"This is a general progression to have people at less risk during the holiday season," Schmidt explained. "In buildings where there are multiple occupancies, the risk is greater."

In Alexandria, the decision has been made to take no proactive enforcement of this regulation. "We will be launching a public education campaign on how to safely have fresh cut trees in the home," said Arthur Dahlberg, director, Code Enforcement, Alexandria Fire Department.

"However, if there are complaints, we will definitely investigate. If we find that there is no fire hazard because the tree and lighting are safe, we will issue a notice giving the occupants 30 days to correct the violation," he explained.

"If we find the situation to be unsafe, such as deteriorated lighting or the tree not properly installed in a way to keep it fresh, we will take more aggressive steps. We prefer to adopt a public education approach rather than blanket enforcement," Dahlberg said.

THAT COMMUNITY outreach approach will be extended to Code Enforcement's meetings with civic associations and other groups throughout the city, according to Dahlberg. However, there are no present plans to make a mass distribution of the new Christmas tree regulations, he said.

"We believe we will be meeting the legal requirements of the code with this policy," Dahlberg said. "We have actually been taking this public education approach for a number of years, and it has proved very successful. But, if there is a complaint, we are duty bound to investigate it."

Although the new code took effect two months ago, there has been little or no information out to the public. The release by Fairfax County fire officials was one of the first. It was followed by a press conference on Nov. 26, the day before Thanksgiving, to offer additional clarification.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department is in the process of preparing a notice on the new addition to the code. This will be sent to all building managers throughout the county, according to Schmidt.

THE OTHER SIDE of the issue, in addition to fire protection safety, is the economic impact this might have on Christmas tree sales. Most vendors are just getting their trees delivered. This weekend will be the first significant buying opportunity.

An area particularly affected is the Route 1 corridor with its host of apartment buildings and condos, the vast majority of which do not have sprinkler systems.

"I've only had a few customers hunting for root balled trees because of the ban, but I didn't order any this year. If I'd have known about this law sooner, I would have ordered some," said Carl W. Edmonds, owner, Edmonds Nursery, 8351A Richmond Highway.

"But most of my customers live in single homes or townhouses. They are also after very good trees, that can be expensive. The vendors who will be hurt are the ones who sell cheap trees along the highway," he predicted.

"Many of those trees come from far away and have been cut sometime ago. They are already dry in many cases. I've even seen some that are spray painted to hide the browning needles. That's the fire hazard," Edmonds said.

BUSINESS AT Hollywoods and Vines has been "brisk," according to Jim Luby, manager. "Lots of people like to buy root balled trees so they can plant them after the holidays. It's really too early to tell how this will affect our cut trees," he said as a large tractor trailer was adding to their already well-stocked inventory of trees at 8453 Richmond Highway.

For Justin Slater at Green Space Unlimited, 7835 1/2 Richmond Highway, the season is still "too early to see any trends." But he showed little concern because, "Most of my customers live in single-family homes," he said.

William Rorer, Rorer's Produce, 8515 Richmond Highway, said, "You'd think the fire department would give us something to hand out to our customers to explain the situation. Nobody has even mentioned it yet. And, we do sell trees to people who live in apartments."

Rorers has printed their own guide titled "Holiday Safety and Christmas Trees — Some Facts." It quotes information and safety suggestions from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).