Wineke: ‘Natural’ Christmas trees don’t belong in Wisconsin churches

Wineke: ‘Natural’ Christmas trees don’t belong in Wisconsin churches

Christmas is over and it might be all too easy to forget one of the worst legislative proposals now active in Wisconsin.

Rep. Robin Vos, speaker of the State Assembly, Rep. Jesse Kremer and State Sen. Steve Nass are circulating a proposal that would prohibit local fire authorities from banning natural Christmas trees in churches.

The bill would establish a presumption that a natural tree “is not a fire hazard” either in churches or in the state Capitol.

The idea gained a fair amount of publicity in the week before Christmas. In normal times, I would assume that it would not die a quiet death. These, however, are not normal times and I would no longer ever expect that sanity might rule in our Legislature.

Here’s the problem with the proposal: Natural Christmas trees are a fire hazard. If a tree catches fire, it goes up like a Roman candle and takes with it anything flammable.

I suppose that wouldn’t be too major a problem in the Capitol Rotunda, where the tree is surrounded by marble and limestone, but it is an enormous hazard in a rural Wisconsin church, where it is surrounded by varnished wood that may be a century or more old.

Here’s the second problem with the proposal: If a tree does catch fire and ignite its surrounding building, someone has to put out that fire.

Being a firefighter is an inherently dangerous occupation. In rural areas, being a firefighter is also a volunteer occupation. The men and women who volunteer in these communities are mechanics and teachers and grocery store clerks.

Most fire districts provide regular training for their volunteers, but we understand that professional firefighters put their lives on the line on our behalf; we don’t have the same expectation of volunteers.

I was a pastor in Colby in 2012 when a volunteer fireman from our neighboring Catholic church was killed fighting a fire in the Abbotsford movie theater. It was a devastating experience.

The only point I’m trying to make here is that churches should not knowingly put their neighbors at risk. We know that those who fight fires risk dying for us. We should not engage in behaviors that endanger them.

I have another problem with all this, too. And that is the Christmas tree legislation is another effort to define reality by what we think reality ought to be.

Live Christmas trees — or, more accurately, dead trees propped up in buckets of water — are fire hazards. It is highly unlikely many of them will actually catch fire, but, if they do they can create devastating results.

They don’t become less of a fire hazard because the Wisconsin Legislature says they’re safe.

“The last thing we need is for bureaucrats to play Grinch in every church in Wisconsin,” Vos said.

No, the last thing we need is for the state to tell local fire chiefs that they cannot mandate safe behavior in their local towns and villages. It’s hard enough finding good men and women to protect lives and property.