- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Virginia fire officials yesterday lifted a 2-month-old ban on live Christmas trees in apartment and condominium complexes that don’t have sprinklers.

Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, a spokeswoman with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said last night that state fire marshals amended the fire code so tenants could set up natural-cut Christmas trees in their apartments or condominiums in time for the holiday season.

The ban, which was passed by the General Assembly in April, forbids tenants in multifamily-housing units without sprinklers from putting up fresh evergreen Christmas trees. Violators faced a maximum penalty of up to $2,500 fine and a year in jail.

The code, however, still prohibits natural-cut Christmas trees in churches, schools, department stores and meeting halls that don’t have sprinkler systems. Under the code, hospitals, adult-care centers and nursing homes also are prohibited from putting up live trees regardless of whether they have sprinklers.

Miss Talmadge-Anderson said the state fire marshals amended the law after the International Code Council, a Falls Church nonprofit group formed in 1994 to develop a single set of national construction codes, eliminated the tree ban from its code earlier yesterday.

A portion of the national construction codes are referred to as the International Fire Code, which Virginia state and local fire marshals must follow.

“State law directs Virginia to consider national model codes when developing standards and regulations in Virginia,” Virginia State Fire Marshal Ed Altizer said yesterday in a written statement. “Given the change to the 2003 edition of the International Fire Code, my office is issuing a modification to the … code to permit natural-cut Christmas trees in individual apartment and condominium dwelling units.”

Miss Talmadge-Anderson said no one has been cited under the code, which went into effect Oct. 1, and that her department last night was notifying all fire departments that the ban was no longer valid.

Before the ban was lifted, Christmas tree growers and apartment managers were upset with the law, saying it was too restrictive and would hurt business. Some apartment complex managers said they hadn’t even heard about the law.

Shirley Hobbs, an assistant manager at the Landmark Terrace Apartments in Alexandria, said she was worried that the fresh-cut trees would go to waste.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Miss Hobbs, whose complex does not have sprinklers. “It’s a little harsh. … How can I stop [the tenants] from putting up trees if I haven’t gotten anything in the mail?”

The Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, which is made up of 120 farms statewide, said it wasn’t informed of the new code until after the farms had cut their trees for the season.

“We weren’t prepared for this, and we were caught off guard,” said Sue Sublett Bostic, the association’s president.

State fire marshals had said the new code was intended to prevent fires that occur each year when heat sources, such as space heaters or Christmas tree lights, set fire to dry Christmas trees.

But statistics compiled by half of Virginia’s 755 fire departments showed that most of the fires in Virginia in the past years were not caused by Christmas trees.

There were no reports of a Christmas tree being the cause of any fires last year, said Kelli Turner, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. There were two reports of residential fires caused by Christmas trees in 2001, she said.

Nationally, there were 400 fires caused by fresh-cut Christmas trees in 2000, said Fairfax County Fire Battalion Chief John White, citing statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association.

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