On a back road in Bedford County, past a series of wooden signs emblazoned with evergreens, is Dancing Hill Christmas Tree Farm, where Richard Miles has been growing trees since 1980.
What started as 1,000 white pine trees is now a sprawling six acres of different varieties of fir, pine and spruce.
On Wednesday morning, workers were hanging up decorations in preparation for the farm’s opening Friday. A 130-year-old sleigh adorned the incline in front of the gift shop, and the air smelled sweet and sappy, like pine and fir.
“It smells like Christmas,” Miles said.
A retired forester and the current battalion chief of the Bedford County Department of Fire and Rescue Wildland Division, Miles demonstrated how to select the perfect Christmas tree Wednesday, while avoiding pitfalls that can lead to fire hazards during the holidays.
“People will research a car. They’ll research a bag of pork chops at the grocery store. But they don’t have a clue about Christmas trees,” Miles said.
When it comes to fire safety and longevity, Miles said the species makes a huge difference.
For example, a Norway spruce will be very flammable within a week or two, while white pine or fir trees will take weeks to get to that point. The Norway spruce also sheds its needles very quickly. Miles said he’s seen people come back to buy a second tree after their Norway spruce lost its needles by Thanksgiving.
“Unfortunately, trees get a bad rap,” Miles said. “A tree doesn’t self-combust, something started the fire other than the tree, and the tree just happened to be there.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, a heat source too close to the Christmas tree causes one in every four winter fires.
But some trees are more flammable than others, Miles said, and the species of tree you choose has everything to do with how many needles are left on your tree come Christmas Day.
The most susceptible to fire are cedar trees, which grow locally. Spruce trees also can be a fire hazard, while fir trees and white pine are the most flame resistant.
Though Norway spruce might look pretty in the field, with its classic conical tree shape and short, prickly needles, Miles cautions against them. They dry out quickly, he said, and lose the most needles.
“Beautiful in the field, horrible in the house,” Miles said. “You saved $20, and now you’re going to pay dearly because you don’t have a tree with a needle left on it by Thanksgiving, much less Christmas.”
When it comes to his own selection for the perfect tree, Miles said it’s the fir tree, without question.
“Firs can give you that aroma, they last a long time,” Miles said. “There’s not a fireproof tree out there — but they are more flame resistant, and last longer before they get to the point where they are a potential hazard.”
But some of the most important fire safety steps come after you select the tree, Bedford County Fire Marshal Leo George said.
George said they always see an increase in fires during this time of the year — usually not because of Christmas trees, but because of hazards like wood stoves, space heaters and chimneys that have not been properly cleaned.
Although Christmas tree fires are not common, when they do occur they are dangerous — on average, one of every 52 reported home Christmas tree fires resulted in death, according to statistics from the NFPA.
One of the most important steps to prevent a fire hazard is the “fresh cut” — or cutting about two inches from the base of the trunk before you place the tree in the stand. Though the tree has already been cut from the field, this ensures that the pores are open to absorb the water and stay healthy.
Placement also is crucial, said George. The tree should be placed away from any radiators, heat vents, candles or other heat sources. Faulty Christmas lights also could cause a safety hazard.
Keep the tree from blocking an exit, turn off the lights before bed or leaving the house and water the tree daily — if the tree is not allowed to dry out, it is far less likely to ignite, and will not go up in flames as quickly if it does.
“The biggest thing is to be smart about it,” George said. “We don’t want fatality fires.”
In the case of a fire, George said “get out and stay out.”
When asked about his perfect Christmas tree, George laughed.
“Don’t let Richard hear this, but I’ve used a pre- lit, fake tree for the last 10 years since I started doing this stuff,” George said. “Because I’m like, ‘I’m not putting one of those in my house.’”
Dave Conley, owner of Dave’s Maine Wreaths and Trees in Lynchburg, has been running his Christmas tree lot for 30 years and offered similar safety tips. He emphasized the importance of keeping the tree from drying out, keeping it watered and giving it a fresh cut before placing it in the stand.
Conley’s favorite Christmas tree is the balsam fir, which he called the “best smelling” of them all.
But, Conley said beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
And Lonnie Miles, Richard Miles’ son, who was working on the family farm Wednesday morning, confirmed it. He named the concolor fir as his favorite. With soft, light-colored needles, and the distinct smell of oranges, the concolor fir is the ideal tree for decorating, he said.
“Everybody is going to have a favorite,” Lonnie Miles said. “There’s a tree for every person, and a person for every tree.”
Reach Sarah Honosky at (434) 385-5556.