It may be hazy, hot and humid, but Virginia officials have Christmas on their minds.
Fire regulations that had banned fresh-cut Christmas trees in churches and apartments were overturned this week by the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development.
The changes came at the insistence of the state's General Assembly, which earlier this year unanimously passed legislation ordering the board to overturn the ban after it was met with confusion and derision at Christmas.
"It struck me as absurd," said Del. Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (R-Spotsylvania), the sponsor of the legislation. "It was the first time in the 14 years I've been in the General Assembly that I had these older women from churches calling me literally in tears because they were told they couldn't have a tree."
The rules, part of a package of fire codes adopted by the state, were put into effect in October. They banned freshly cut Christmas trees in apartments, condominiums and other multiunit buildings that do not have sprinkler systems. The trees also were banned in public places without sprinklers, including churches, restaurants and hotels.
A violation was a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by a fine of as much as $2,500, 12 months in jail and 100 hours of community service.
The rules were criticized by churchgoers, apartment dwellers, merchants and others who yearned for the yuletide of old. Others noted that Christmas trees are a $20 million industry in Virginia.
Under pressure, some state and local officials reversed themselves three weeks before Christmas, creating a patchwork of enforcement that only created more confusion. Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria kept the ban on the books, but the latter two waived enforcement.
The ban was active until Thursday, when the state fire marshal issued emergency regulations that will allow fresh Douglas firs and other real trees in churches and apartments in time for Christmas. The change will be in effect until next July. State housing officials say that will be enough time to go through the lengthy, bureaucratic process of making the change permanent.
In keeping with the "Christmas in July" theme, state Fire Marshal Ed Altizer distributed a set of Christmas tree safety tips. It cautioned residents to keep candles away from trees, dispose of dried-out trees promptly and keep trees at least three feet away from any heat source.
"We will never miss an opportunity to put out safety tips on trees," Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, a spokeswoman for Altizer, said -- no matter what the weather is like.