Avoiding Smoke

By Tawny Maya McCray

November 15, 2016 5 min read

It's that time of year again for Christmas trees, lights and decorations. With all the joy and beauty that brings, it can also bring added fire hazards to your home, especially if you have a dry tree or defective lights. Here are some fire safety tips you need to know to help keep your holidays merry.

"Christmas tree fires are rare but can be particularly deadly," says Lee Swanson, spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. On average, 1 in 31 Christmas tree fires result in a death, compared with an average of one death per 144 total home fires.

Swanson says that nationwide, there are approximately 210 Christmas tree fires per year, resulting in an average of seven deaths and 19 injuries.

Some ways to stay safe from fires during the holidays include using safe tree lights. Some are designed for indoor use and some for outdoor use, so use accordingly. Discard any string of lights with worn, frayed or broken cords or loose bulb connections. Connect no more than three strands of push-in bulbs and a maximum of 50 bulbs for screw-in bulbs. Unplug Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed. Choose a sturdy tree stand designed not to fall over. Make sure the tree is at least 3 feet away from any heat source, such as a fireplace or radiator. Avoid placing the tree where it blocks any exits. And water the tree every day to keep it as moist as possible. In addition, never use electric lights on a metal tree.

When buying a tree, look for fresh trees with needles that are green and hard to pull back from the branches. The needles do not break if the tree has been freshly cut. The trunk should be sticky to the touch. Old trees can be identified by bouncing the tree trunk on the ground. If many needles fall off, the tree has been cut for so long that it has dried out and is a fire hazard. And if you buy an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled as fire-retardant.

Swanson says that if a fire does start from your tree or lights, call 911.

"Generally speaking, Christmas trees burn rapidly and produce a lot of smoke."

In addition to incidents with trees and lights, Swanson says, there are many accidents related to decorating. Every year between November and February, an estimated 5,800 injuries nationwide related to people falling while putting up or taking down holiday decorations are treated at the emergency room.

Swanson adds that there are also more cooking fires and candle fires during the holidays than at any other time of year.

"We strongly recommend using flameless candles," he says.

Typically, shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters or matches start tree fires.

Kitchen safety tips include staying in the kitchen while you're cooking; if you must leave, you should turn the heat down and return quickly. Avoid wearing loose-fitting clothing, such as long open sleeves, which can be ignited by hot burners. Keep anything that can catch fire -- including dish towels, plastic or paper bags, and curtains -- at least 3 feet away from the range top. Keep children and pets away from the stove. Turn pot handles inward to prevent small children from reaching and pulling down a hot pan. If your clothes do catch fire, then stop, drop and roll; drop immediately to the ground and roll over and over or back and forth to put out the flames.

After the holidays, you should safely dispose of your tree when it begins dropping needles. Dried-out trees are highly flammable and should not be left in the house or garage or placed against the house. Never put tree branches or needles in a fireplace or wood-burning stove. When the tree becomes dry, discard it right away. The best way to dispose of your tree is by taking it to a recycling center or having it hauled away by a community pickup service.

As for decorations, inspect holiday lights each year for frayed wires, bare spots, gaps in the insulation, broken or cracked sockets, and excessive kinking or wear before putting them up. Bring outdoor electrical lights inside after the holidays to prevent hazards and extend their life.

Stay safe, and happy decorating!

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