By Samantha Joseph
TREASURE COAST -- Put old Christmas trees through the wood chipper, instead of burning them. That's the advice Florida Forest Service officials are issuing during the holidays to prevent wildfires this time of year.
"A lot of people think it's a joy and fun to burn them, but when they do burn the trees ignite pretty quickly," said Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist at the Okeechobee district of the Florida Forest Service, which serves Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Highlands, Glades and Okeechobee counties.
"They will quickly catch on fire and send firebrands -- lit pine needles -- into the air and start other fires," she said.
By the end of December, when residents are ready to throw out old Christmas trees, the state will be well into the dry season when conditions are prime for sparking brush fires.
"We do have small ones because the vegetation is fully dried out and can spark when people are burning yard trash," Ms. Yunas said. "There is that possibility, so if people are aware we can reduce the chances (of starting fires)."
Officials said careful disposal of Christmas trees at the end of the holiday season is a key step in protecting homes and property.
But equally important is what residents do at the start of the season, said Richie Bamlet, senior forester and certified arborist.
"When choosing a Christmas tree, it is important to buy a fresh tree," Mr. Bamlet said in a statement.
Drier plants are more likely to kindle, and fresh trees absorb water, reducing fire risks.
"Cut an inch off the bottom or ask the vendor to do it for you," Mr. Bamlet said. "This new cut will allow water to be taken up. Put your tree in water as soon as you get home and be sure to top-up daily. A fresh tree will drink about a pint a day for the first couple of days. "
For residents who decide to burn their trees after the holidays, here are some tips from the experts at the Florida Forest Service:
Keep a shovel and water hose handy;
Don't burn on windy days or when the humidity is below 35 percent;
Contain the fire within an 8-foot diameter pile or non-combustible barrel;
Keep fires at 25 feet from your home or forests, about 50 feet from paved public roads and 150 feet from other occupied buildings.
Also, officials warn a burn that turns into an unwanted blaze could lead to major fines and liability in covering suppression costs and paying for damaged property.
"Burning yard waste does not require an authorization from the Florida Forest Service, but you should check with your local city, county or Florida Forest Service officials to see if there are any restrictions in your area," Ms. Yunas said.
"Get to know the burn laws in your area before your strike that match. It is unsafe and illegal to burn wrapping paper and gift boxes. Consider recycling instead of burning your Christmas trees in order to reduce the chances of sparking a wildfire."
For more fire-prevention tips, burning rules and regulations visit the forest service's website, www.floridaforestservice.com, or contact a local office. In Vero Beach, the contact is (772) 778-5085, Port St. Lucie (772) 468-3915 and Stuart (772) 221-4045.