Christmas is a joyous occasion for spending quality time with your family, feasting on great food and exchanging gifts in the holiday spirit. With the focus on family and festivities, safety often gets pushed to the back burner. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), this leads to almost 400 Christmas tree or decoration-related house fires and 20 deaths each year.
Christmas Tree Safety
Dry Christmas trees account for over 60 percent of all Christmas-related home fires. The reason for this is twofold. First, dry pine trees ignite easily. A string of incandescent lights, if left on for an extended period of time, can ignite dry pine needles. Second, a dry tree burns fast and hot. If you are planning on using a real tree, keep it watered. Your tree stand should hold at least a gallon and a half of water and be filled every day (multiple times if necessary). A tree filled with moisture will not ignite as easily and if it does burn, will burn at a lower temperature at a much slower rate.
Getting a healthy tree is the first step in making sure that it will be fire safe. Tap the trunk of the tree on the ground and look for fallen needles. If there is a ring of needles after you tap the trunk, the tree has been sitting for a long time and may not wick up water once you get it home. Only choose fresh cut trees that do not easily drop needles.
When you get your tree home, cut 2 inches from the base of the trunk to provide a fresh contact for water to enter the tree. Place the tree in your tree stand and move it so no part of the tree is within 3 feet of a heat source. Heat vents, fireplaces, radiators and even candles can dry out areas of the tree and make them more susceptible to fire.
Don’t block any exits with your tree. If the tree catches fire, you’ll want to be able to get out of the area fast.
Once the tree is in its permanent place, fill the stand reservoir. Check it frequently for the first few days. You may have to fill it multiple times a day to keep the tree needles moist.
If you don’t plan on using a real tree, a flame-retardant artificial Christmas tree will provide the best protection against a tree fire. Not all artificial trees are flame retardant. Make sure to check the label for a “Fire Resistant” designation.
Lighting Best Practices
The second-leading cause of Christmas-related fires is faulty electrical wires or overloaded sockets. Everyone wants to have great lights, but having more lights can lead to serious socket load issues. A standard socket should not hold more than three mini string light sets (about 150 lights). Using a surge protector can allow double this number. New LED lights draw far less energy, which can allow you to use several more strands. They also emit almost no heat, so they are the choice type of lighting for live trees. The number of LED strings that can be connected together varies by manufacturer; read the instructions with your strings and follow the manufacturer recommendations.
Older lights often have broken bulbs or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires or loose connections. If any of your strings are damaged in any way, do not use them.
When you are hanging outdoor lights, use insulated staples to hang your strands and plug them into ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). This will prevent them from being damaged by the wind or through water reaching the socket. There are portable GFCIs available at most big-box retailers and home-improvement stores.
Don’t decorate trees with candles. This may be a time-honored tradition, but it is one of the most dangerous things you can put on your tree. Even if your tree is in great condition, open flames can singe needles and light trim or decorations on fire. There are LED flickering candle ornaments made specifically to replace real candles. Use these instead.
If a fireplace is going to get used during the year, Christmas is the time. The burning of the Yule log can create a nice focal point for a Christmas Eve gathering, but if the flue has not been cleaned it can lead to a chimney fire. When wood fires burn, they release carbon-based materials into the flue, especially creosote. These build up on the interior of the chimney and can ignite if the temperature in the fireplace gets high enough.
This is part of the reason that only hardwoods should be burned in a fireplace. Wrapping paper, cardboard boxes and other Christmas remnants can burn hot and fast and result in a chimney fire. They can also release toxic gases into the home.
Other Fire Risks
When large gatherings occur, people end up sleeping in places that weren’t designed for it. This could mean basements, living rooms or family rooms. Unfortunately, this often means using space heaters. Space heaters account for 32 percent of all home fires, but according to the NFPA, they cause 79 percent of home fire deaths. This happens because space heaters are often run while people are asleep. If you must use a space heater over the holidays, keep a 3 foot minimum distance to any other objects. Make this a kid-free zone as well. Make sure your unit is equipped with an automatic tip switch that will turn off the heater if it is knocked over.
The holidays mean lots of food. If you are cooking a Christmas dinner, don’t leave any stovetop food unattended and check on items in the oven periodically. Have a designated area for your oven mitts, wooden spoons, food packages and towels that is well away from the cooking surfaces. There will be a lot of activity in the area. Do your best to keep people from lingering by placing snack trays out in the dining area. Keep your pot lids nearby to smother grease fires. And remember, never throw water on a fire in the kitchen, grease will rise to the top, and the fire will quickly spread.
The number-one cause of fire-related death in the United States is smoking. Lit cigarettes readily ignite furniture and bedding materials resulting in high-intensity fires. Almost all smoking-related fires happen when the smoker falls asleep with a lit cigarette. To eliminate this, insist on a no-smoking policy in your home. Politely ask your guests to smoke on the porch or in a garage area with an open door. They won’t fall asleep, and there won’t be any smoking-related fires.
If a fire does break out in your home, you need to have the right equipment on hand to take care of it. There should be a smoke detector on every level of the home, fire extinguishers in the kitchen, upstairs and downstairs closets, and fire escape ladders in upstairs bedrooms.
The smoke detector is the number-one life saver when it comes to home fires. Two-thirds of all fire deaths happen in homes without smoke detectors or in ones where the smoke detector was not working properly. Make sure to test all smoke detectors and replace any batteries as is necessary.
Just having a fire extinguisher is a step in the right direction. Every fire extinguisher should be ABC rated so it is safe for all fire types. In addition to having the correct type of extinguisher, you need to know when and how to use it. Extinguishers should only be used on small, contained fires like those that start in wastebaskets. If the fire is taller than you are, get everyone out of the house and call 9-1-1. Fires double in size every minute, so if it is already larger than you are there is little chance that you will be able to control it on your own.
In the case of a small fire, use the PASS method.
P – pull the pin
A – aim the nozzle at the base of the fire
S – squeeze the trigger slowly
S – sweep the fire with a back and forth motion
A typical household fire extinguisher will deliver between 10 and 20 seconds of spray time. This is just enough to douse a small fire or help you create an escape path through a larger one.
Having fire escape ladders in the upper bedrooms creates an escape route that doesn’t require descending the stairs where there might be a fire. There are two standard lengths, the 13-foot to 15-foot ladder and the 23-foot to 25-foot ladder. These are used for two and three-story homes. If you have windows that are over three stories high, custom ladders can be bought for these rooms.
We want your holidays to be happy and safe. Following the fireman’s guide advice should help you avoid the common causes of Christmas-related house fires.