The Flammable Fireproof Christmas Trees

The old practice of dipping Christmas Trees for fire safety was once a Des Plaines tradition. That is, of course, until we found out the whole story!

One of the first duties a new Des Plaines firefighter recruit in 1971 was assigned, along with cleaning the toilets and other "character-building" tasks, was dipping Christmas Trees in December.

Each year local firefighters would bring out the old galvanized steel horse trough, clean it up and fill it with water. Then, a few bags of powdered borax and boric acid was added and dissolved into solution. For 2 to 3 weeks then, local residents were invited to bring thier newly purchased Christmas Trees to the fire station where the tree would be dipped, rendering it more fire resistant and safe enough to set up at home.

For years the tree dipping became a tradition for hundreds of families in the area,  even spanning generations as the cycle continued with new parents bringing in thier own trees and kids with the often heard nostalgic proclamation, "I remember coming here when I was a kid!"  Though frowned upon by the Chief and discouraged by shift commanders, firefighters sometimes set up a small "tip jar" primed with a buck or two for the occasional donation to our firehouse pantry kitty.

One Chicago TV station would even send a reporter out each year to do an annual spot.  Each year she'd show up, ask to use a private washroom to put in her contact lenses and make sure her makeup and hair were OK, and each year we'd help her by demonstrating the process.  For a few years, we'd even ignite a non-dipped branch and then try to ignite a dipped branch to show how safe the tree was after dipping. (The dipped branch was always still damp, of course, and it would take a blowtorch to ignite it but hey, that's show biz.)  One year we played a practical joke by pre-dipping the second branch in gasoline instead.  Needless to say they needed to do a retake, and the reporter was not very happy about it.

I have no idea how long the department had been providing this holiday service each year, but it continued on through the mid-1980's. That's during the time I was assigned to the Fire Prevention Bureau in charge of Fire and Burn Prevention Education. Much of that involved PR and publicity, and I had the brilliant idea of perhaps contacting a major manufacturer of the chemicals used to see if they'd donate the borax for our annual dipping and do some cross-publicity as well.

"You're doing what?" was the incredulous reply when I finally spoke to a company rep and explained my idea. It sounded almost as if he nearly dropped the phone.  I explained in greater detail about our local tradition, as he repeatedly muttered in muted whispers, "Oh no," or "Oh my God," or "You're kidding, right?"  Obviously I had made an impression.

The rep explained that while the practice of spraying trees with a borax solution may have been recommended several decades ago, it was intended to provide a porous coating for tree needles that would allow them to breathe but at the same time help retain moisture.  It was intended only for short needle trees and only for trees that had been freshly cut.  A moist tree was less likely to ignite than an old dry tree.

"That practice hasn't been recommended for decades, and even then it wasn't meant to 'fireproof' a tree, just help it retain moisture" he continued. "These days so many holiday tree lots are filled with trees that may have been harvested 2 to 3 months prior and already drying out."

I informed the Chief of what I had learned, and advised that the service be discontinued.  In it's place, we increased emphasis on keeping live trees well watered and away from furnace vents, etc.  Personally, that was the last year I allowed a live tree in our home, as we opted for a variety of artificial trees in the years that followed.

There is a nice tree a couple of houses down in my nieghborhood that's beginning to look big enough though. Maybe next year?

(Check out my book, "10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back" as a great holiday gift this year!)  

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