Safety Concerns Snuff Annual Christmas Tree Bonfire

Many New Paltz residents were upset by local officials’ decision to discontinue the annual Christmas tree bonfire festivities this year.

Mayor Tim Rogers justifies the Sept. 12 decision as a way to address both the New York State open burning laws and the concerns of the New Paltz Volunteer Fire Department. 

The village has floated in somewhat of a legal gray zone with “traditional” Christmas tree bonfires. For nearly a decade, residents brought their retired Christmas trees to Hasbrouck Park for a massive bonfire. While section 215 of New York State open burning law allows for towns to conduct open fires under certain circumstances, it specifically states that “this subdivision shall not be construed to allow burning within any village.”

New Paltz Fire Chief Cory Wirthmann expressed his frustration with the negative response that he and his department have received since the verdict. “We are just following what the state has told us to do. It is about upholding the integrity of laws,” he said.

“At least doing [the bonfire] in the town takes the state burning law out of the way,” Wirthmann said. “It makes it more cut and dry, and in the village it’s more of a conversation,” 

Mayor Rogers agrees with Chief Wirthmann that another central concern is the volunteers. Rogers adds that “while they love to do as much as possible for the community, sometimes these events can be an unnecessary task.” 

“You simply can’t tax the volunteers too much, that’s what leads to them getting burned out,” Wirthman said. “While the community can ask for the support of the fire department as much as it wants, it has to be willing to let them say no every now and then.” 

There is also recent evidence that reaffirms the danger of bonfire events in the village. Last year, New Paltz High School held a bonfire before the homecoming football game. According to Wirthmann, the fire was built too tall, making it structurally weak. As it got hotter, the base collapsed, sending a massive plume of embers into the air. Wirthmann asserts that it was highly worrying, especially considering the fact that the beloved wooden playground is right next to where the fire took place and many houses were in close proximity.

Wirthman feels that the NPVFD often gets villainized for their decisions, and argues that some people neglect the volunteer aspect of the department. Many firefighters have families, jobs and other obligations outside their volunteer work, and already have to be ready for two or more calls to the department per day.

The Christmas tree bonfire is, more than anything, a way to bring members of the community together during the holiday season. One alternative to that end might be a “mulching party,” where people bring their Christmas trees to be churned into mulch. Wirthmann points out that this is an effective way to both get rid of highly flammable trees, as well as bring people together.

“Once you hear the word fire, we have the whole department here, ready to go. That’s how we operate,” Wirthman said. “The fire department will always be there to help out.”