Workers kill statehouse Christmas tree

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Mandated fire-retardant application snuffs out blue spruce

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (AP) -- It's a Charlie Brown Christmas for Rhode Island's official Christmas tree.
The 18-foot Colorado blue spruce lost its needles and died after Statehouse workers dried it with commercial fans and sprayed it with a fire-retardant chemical. The workers were following the stringent new fire code enacted after a nightclub blaze in West Warwick three years ago killed 100 people.
The pathetic-looking tree was hustled out of the building Wednesday night.
Gov. Donald Carcieri sheepishly explained the tree's demise and suggested the state might get an artificial replacement next year.
"With the new fire code, we're supposed to spray it," he told WPRO-AM. "And, apparently, the spray killed it."
Rhode Island law designates Christmas trees as "flammable vegetation" and regulates their display in public buildings. Until recently, Christmas trees in public buildings had to be doused with fire retardant, said Tom Coffey, executive director of the Fire Safety Code Board of Appeal and Review.
The state lifted that requirement on December 6, Coffey said, but that was too late for the Statehouse tree, which was put up November 25.
Lawmakers overhauled the fire code after the February 2003 nightclub fire. At first, the code banned Christmas trees in public buildings, but tree farmers fought earlier this year to have that section removed in exchange for safeguards that include posting the tree's watering schedule nearby.
A properly watered tree is not a fire hazard, said Al Bettencourt, executive director of Rhode Island's Farm Bureau, who once tried proving the point on cable TV.
"First we tried to light it with matches -- couldn't do it," he said. "Then we took out a 50,000-BTU blowtorch and we turned that onto the tree."
The pine crackled, he said, but never caught fire.
Bettencourt and a team of farmers rushed Thursday to get a replacement tree. The task proved complicated because the law also requires a fire marshal to be on hand when a tree destined for public display is cut down, to ensure freshness.
"This one will not be sprayed," promised Steve Kass, a spokesman for the governor.