s
s
Sections
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone

Mike Gutzman was braced for sales to be soft after wildfires destroyed thousands of Sonoma County homes that might otherwise be warmed this time of year by the glow of a Christmas tree from his north Santa Rosa lot.

Instead, it appears fire-weary consumers are eager to turn the page on weeks of shared trauma and grief, and are turning to the joyful traditions of the winter holiday season for consolation.

As soon as Thanksgiving was over and done, fresh-cut tree lots began luring droves of people keen to find the perfect centerpiece for their Christmas celebration, several vendors said.

“We were very concerned about the loss of houses,” said 42-year veteran Gutzman, owner of Kringle’s Korner Christmas Trees at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. “But we had the biggest weekend ever.”

Amid a much-publicized nationwide shortage of fresh-cut Christmas trees, strong opening sales at local specialty lots may simply reflect shrewd consumers’ desire to shop early while availability and selection are at their peak, though local vendors said they were having no problems obtaining stock.

A reduction in the number of stand-alone Christmas tree lots in Sonoma County also may have concentrated customer demand at those that remain. At least three lots are no longer in operation this year for reasons that aren’t related to the fires, including one at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, one in Cotati and another in Healdsburg.

But judging from comments and conversations with customers, some sales personnel said, many consumers — including some forced by fires to set up housekeeping someplace new — appeared grateful for a festive family outing to turn to after Thanksgiving, given the bleakness of recent times.

“Most people seemed to want to put (the fire) behind them,” Gutzman’s niece, Amy McCoy, said during a lull in business one recent morning. “There was one gentleman: just got a new job, a new place to live. He just wanted a tree.”

Sales at home improvement centers and stores with more generalized merchandise have yet to gain real steam, according to representatives. But they tend not to emphasize the experience as much as family-run operations, where there is often more focus on fun attractions, a high level of customer service and a wide range of products.

The bouncy house and artificial snow field — it’s actually cold! — at Crazy Rudolph’s Christmas Trees, now at Coddingtown, was filled with kids playing last weekend, lot manager Tim Kelly said. The coming weekend could be even busier now that December has begun, he said.

Marsha Gray, communications director for the national Christmas Tree Promotion Board, administered by the U.S. Agriculture Department, said those who tend to be choosy about yuletide trees should shop now just to make sure they can find what they want.

A representative for Sonoma County-based Pronzini Christmas Trees, which has fresh-cut lots in Petaluma, San Rafael and elsewhere, said high-elevation-grown Silvertip firs appear to be in short supply in some locations. Lindsey McAllister, a longtime employee, said Pronzini has been getting almost 500 calls a day, mostly from people seeking the open-branched trees. She’s got them.

But the nation’s fresh-cut Christmas tree growers — chief among them, those in Oregon, the main source for western states and the country’s top producer — should have no problem providing enough trees for everyone who wants one, Gray said.

“We are sending fewer trees to market this year, but it’s not a panic,” she said.

Like other sources, Gray credited the shortage to production cycles that take 8 to 10 years to hit the market, or about the time it takes to grow most Christmas tree varieties from seedling to sale.

An oversupply as the last recession reverberated forced growers to dig up and burn unsold stocks, limiting their motivation to plant in abundance, Gutzman said.

Bob Schaefer, general manager at Salem, Oregon-based Noble Mountain Tree Farm, which produces about a half a million fresh-cut Christmas trees a year, said there were some growers who couldn’t weather the storm and had to get out of the business after overplanting led to a glut and low prices eight and 10 years ago.

But Schaefer attributed problems with a shortage of Noble fir supplies now to a 15-year gap in pine cone production needed to provide the seedlings growers need to grow into trees.

Conifers only produce abundant cones when they are under stress and, absent that, don’t reproduce on a large scale, he said. After several years of low cone production, extended hot, dry weather last year finally led to a good crop, he said.

Local vendors said they have long-term relationships with their growers and put in orders about a year in advance, thus locking up the supplies they need.

But between tight supplies and continually rising freight costs, both growers’ and vendors’ expenses are up, and consumers at some locations can expect to pay a bit more as a result, though usually no more than a few dollars above last year’s price.

One customer at Kringle’s Korner, Guerneville resident George Pedroni, said it seemed to him he and his husband had paid $15 or $20 less in previous years of the roughly $60 he was being asked to pay this week.

But Gutzman said the prices on his lot were up only a few dollars, about $6 on “upper end trees,” reflecting what he said was an 8 percent hike in his own costs for trees.

The price bump does not appear to have dampened demand, however.

Gutzman, whose lot at the edge of the Tubbs fire burn zone is surrounded by neighborhoods incinerated in the blaze, suffered losses himself when the October fires struck. He lost product, equipment, materials and two weeks of sales from his other seasonal business, Punky’s Pumpkins. He wasn’t sure what to expect in the aftermath, but it wasn’t the record sales.

Yet last weekend, he sold nearly 1,500 trees over three days.

“People are really committed to getting a Christmas tree,” Gutzman said.

“They were out here in an inch rainstorm getting a Christmas tree, and it isn’t even December.”

Mark’s Tree Lot owner Mark Lazzini similarly reported he was “totally cleaned out” after the first weekend of sales at his site on Third and Dutton streets in Santa Rosa.

“We had nothing,” he said, as he and his crew unloaded hundreds more new trees from a truck loaded to the gills.

His sister, Kathy Hansen, who works the lot during the season, said she thinks locals are looking for ways to feed their souls after so much heartbreak, and indulging in the season’s traditions is one way to do that.

“I thought because of the fire, we’d be slower,” Lazzini said. “It was kind of scary. But everybody wants to get Christmas going.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Show Comment