BEDFORD — 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 6 acres of different varieties of fir, pine and spruce.
On Wednesday morning, workers were hanging up decorations in preparation for the farm’s opening on Friday, and the air smelled sweet and sappy.
“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 showed Wednesday how to select the perfect Christmas tree — and how to avoid 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.
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 you choose has everything to do with how many needles are left on your tree on Christmas Day.
The most susceptible to fire are cedar trees, which grow locally. Spruce trees can also be a fire hazard, while fir trees and white pine are the most flame resistant.
Though Norway spruce trees might look pretty in the field, with a 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 he picks his own perfect tree, Miles said it’s a 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.”
Dave Conley, owner of Dave’s Maine Wreaths and Trees in Lynchburg, has been running his Christmas tree lot for 30 years. He said it’s important to keep the tree from drying out, keep it watered and give 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 also working on the family farm on Wednesday morning, confirmed it. He said the concolor fir is 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.”