The Christmas season is supposed to be a time of joy: a chance to take a step back from the daily grind of work and school and spend treasured time with loved ones and friends. For too many people, though, the holidays become a time of pain and loss, as fires caused by dried-out Christmas trees and faulty decorative lights destroy their homes and take the lives of family members.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 250 Christmas-tree-related fires occur in the United States each year and result in an annual average of 14 deaths, 26 injuries and $13.8 million in property damage. Clearly, decorating for the holidays carries some risks; however, by taking some basic preventative measures – from making sure you buy a healthy tree to placing your tree far from a heat source – experts say you can dramatically decrease the chances of a fire breaking out in your home.
Holiday fire prevention begins with your Christmas tree selection. A dry tree is a major fire hazard. Therefore, if you’re buying a live tree, you have to make sure that it’s fresh. Before selecting a tree, tap it on the ground several times, says Jeff Scarbrough, fire marshal for the city of Sandy Springs, Ga. “If a bunch of needles fall off, it’s already starting to dry,” he says. “Don’t buy it.”
A fresh tree also has plenty of sticky resin on the bottom of its trunk, and features needles that are hard to pull from its branches and that don’t break when bent, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says. Cutting a few inches off the bottom of a Christmas tree to expose fresh wood can improve water absorption and decrease the chances of the tree drying out, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes. If you choose to buy an artificial tree, make sure it’s labeled “fire resistant,” AAP urges.
Once you bring a live tree home, keep it sufficiently watered. “Monitor the [tree stand],” Scarbrough says. “Check every day to make sure that it’s got plenty of water.”
Furthermore, whether it’s live or artificial, don’t place your tree near a fireplace or other heat source. “The tree needs to be placed at an appropriate distance, preferably across the room,” says Steve Lee, a retired firefighter and an alderman for the town of Benton, Ark. “A fireplace really pulls moisture out of [nearby] wood products.” Heat sources also can melt artificial trees and the insulation of the lights on them, which in turn could cause a fire, Lee says.
Seeing the Light
When purchasing tree lights, check to see that the lights have a label indicating they have been tested by a nationally recognized laboratory, Scarbrough recommends. Additionally, whether your lights are new or old, examine them for frayed or exposed wires, broken or cracked sockets, and loose connections, CPSC says.
You should also make sure that you’re not overloading any electrical outlets, Scarbrough notes. To guard against this, the U.S. Fire Administration recommends linking no more than three light strands together.
Other safety tips from AAP include: make sure that lights you place outside have been certified for such use and plug outdoor lights into circuits with ground fault circuit interrupters to reduce the risk of electric shock.
Lee says one of the most effective tips is one of the simplest: turn off Christmas tree lights before going to bed or leaving the house. “They’re not a fire hazard if they’re off,” he says.
The Perils of Cooking
According to Scarbrough, a significant portion of fires result from people getting distracted while cooking – he estimates that one-third of the home fires that his department handles are cooking related. Potential distractions can multiply during the holidays. “You’ve got family in town, kids running around,” he says. “These are all good things, but they make it easy to get distracted. A grease fire can start and travel very quickly. Make sure you only cook when you can pay full attention.”
Likewise, Lee notes that preventing Christmas tree-related fires is, to a certain extent, a matter of not getting too carried away with the holiday spirit. “A lot of this is commonsense-type stuff, but people don’t think about it because everyone is in a festive mood and feeling good,” he says. “Don’t be blinded by the festiveness of the season.”
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