A dispute over the state’s fire code ignited Thursday, with at least one fire chief saying the rules no longer allow Christmas trees in churches, hotels and other places where people gather.
But Gov. Jim Doyle promised that Christmas trees won’t be hauled out of churches this winter.
“In churches, you can have Christmas trees,” Doyle said early Thursday. “My understanding is maybe someone has put out a rumor of some kind, and I’m going to make sure the secretary of commerce clarifies that there is no ban of any kind that’s there.”
Hours later, Commerce Secretary Dick Leinenkugel sent a letter to the state’s fire chiefs telling them they have the power to set rules that allow Christmas trees in churches and other buildings.
The state updated its fire code in March to conform to national standards. Wausau Fire Chief Gary Buchberger said the changes don’t allow Christmas trees or other combustible vegetation in places where people assemble.
“The state adopted these codes and, at least in my jurisdiction, I have to enforce it,” he said.
He said he would not enforce the ban this Christmas, but would next year. He said he wanted to give churches and businesses time to prepare for the change.
Zach Brandon, Leinenkugel’s top aide, said the code gives local jurisdictions the power to set parameters that would allow Christmas trees in churches.
Part of the code explicitly bans Christmas trees from places of assembly, but another portion says that “limited quantities of combustible vegetation shall be permitted where (a local fire official) determines that adequate safeguards are provided.”
Brandon said that meant local officials could set standards – such as regularly watering the trees and keeping them away from space heaters – that would allow them to be kept in churches.
The Department of Commerce’s response was prompted by a letter from Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) and four other Senate Democrats who said local authorities needed clarification on the code.
“I think anybody that wants to take away a Christmas tree at Christmastime ought to be put on Santa’s naughty list,” Decker said.
Tom Mishefske, operations manager for the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services, said city churches are allowed to have Christmas trees as long as they meet safety requirements.