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Fire hazard: What to teach residents about holiday decorations

As beautiful as they may be, the tradition of decorating homes during the holidays can be deadly if fire hazards are ignored


Christmas trees account for approximately 240 fires annually, resulting in 13 deaths and more than $16 million in property damage.

Photo/Public Domain Photos

Hold on a minute before you think I might suggest that you tell your residents not to put up Christmas trees this year. They can celebrate the holidays however they wish, but there are inherent hazards in placing a live (or artificial) tree inside the home during the holidays, when plenty of family and friends visit.

What is a holiday party without a beautifully decorated Christmas tree? More than 33 million American homes decorate with a natural tree as part of the holiday decorations each year.

Yet, Christmas trees account for approximately 240 fires annually, resulting in 13 deaths and more than $16 million in property damage. Typically, shorts in electrical lights and open flames from candles, lighters or matches start tree fires. Well-watered trees are not usually a problem, but dry and neglected one can be.

Dried out

Even trees that have been well watered and cared for will eventually stop absorbing water and start to dry out. A good rule of thumb to tell your residents is to never keep a live Christmas tree for more than a month.

When the needles start falling off in large numbers, it is a good sign that it is time to get it out of the house. Dry trees are a fire hazard and should not be left in the home, garage or placed outside against the home.

When a flame from a candle touches a dry tree, it doesn’t take long for a raging fire to ensue. Within three seconds of ignition, the dry tree is ablaze. At five seconds, the fire can extend up the tree and issue large quantities of thick black smoke and searing gases across the ceiling.

Fresh air near the floor continues feeding the fire, and the heat layer high in the room begins to bank down, preheating other combustibles in the room. Within 40 seconds, a flashover can occur, where the entire room erupts into flames, the oxygen supply is diminishing, and thick, dense smoke engulfs the entire room.

Share this video clip with your community, so they understand just how fast fire in a Christmas tree can spread.

Proper disposal

Tell your adults not to dispose of Christmas trees by burning them in a fireplace or woodstove. The trees have a lot of sap, which can lead to explosive burning once heated. Pine needles also burn hot and fast, and flames can quickly flare out of control and send sparks flying across a room or ignite creosote deposits in the chimney and cause a chimney fire.

Artificial trees may not dry out, but keep in mind most are made from synthetic materials that can easily catch fire and burn almost as rapidly as a real tree. All trees, real or artificial, should be kept well away from direct heating sources such as fireplaces, wood stoves and space heaters.

Candles should also be placed away from Christmas trees, and out of the path of travel of children and pets that may knock it into a tree. Check all lights before putting them on the tree for any cracks in the insulation. If they are cracked or fraying, dispose of them and replace them with a fresh set that bear the UL seal of approval.

When families think about holidays, decorating, shopping and cooking, it is easy to put fire safety on the back burner. Share the tips with your community – it could save their lives.

This article, originally published on Dec. 9, 2012, has been updated

Tom Kiurski has been in the fire service since 1981. He is the Training Coordinator and Director of Fire Safety Education for Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer and lieutenant prior to his appointment as the training coordinator. He has earned an Associates Degree in Fire Science from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., a Bachelors Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. Tom teaches fire service-related courses at local colleges and fire academies. He has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis seven times, as well as numerous state and local conferences. He has written more than 300 articles on fire safety education and training that have appeared in various fire service publications. Contact Tom at