For many families celebrating Christmas, a natural pine tree brought into their homes is an essential part of tradition. The evergreen aroma, the decorating and the blinking lights.
But fire experts warn every year that fire safety is extremely important around the holidays — a tree in the home can quickly become a tinsel-laden pack of kindling: An average of 200 house fires began with a Christmas tree every year between 2011 and 2015, according to the National Fire Protection Association website, and those fires were more likely to result in someone’s death.
A key consideration for keeping the holidays safe and festive, according to Bruce Bouch, public information officer for the Gamber fire company and retired senior deputy of the Office of the State Fire Marshal, is making sure to select a fresh, green tree, and then keeping it that way.
“Pre-cut trees, they have sometimes been cut down for a month or so,” he said. “When you bend the needles themselves on the tree, if the needles bend and they bend back, that shows that it is still fresh. If they fall off, that’s a problem — you don’t want that tree.”
That doesn’t mean a pre-cut tree may not be fresh, but Bouch said that regardless of whether you cut the tree down yourself or picked it up from a pre-cut lot, it’s important to get it into water as quickly as possible, and ensure it can soak up the H2O.
“When you go put it up in your house you want to cut the bottom fresh and put a slight angle on two sides of the bottom so that it exposes it when you put it the stand, so it doesn’t just stick against the bottom,” he said. “You want moisture to actually get to it.”
As with flowers in a vase, the fresh cutting will allow the water to get into the tree, keep it moist and fresh for the holidays. But only if the water is there to begin with, Bouch said.
“Make sure you water it daily,” he said. “If you have pets, you have to be considerate of the fact that they will probably try to drink some of that water so it may dissipate much more frequently.”
Trees should also be kept away from heating vents or heat sources, not only because space heaters or other devices could ignite a tree, but because they will speed evaporation and dry the tree, according to Bouch. Similarly, lights on the tree should not be left on constantly, he said.
How much of a difference can a fresh, well-watered tree make? A striking one.
In a video produced by the National Fire Protection Association, a split screen shows a well-watered tree and a dry tree that have been intentionally lit on fire. The dry tree becomes a burning torch within seconds, with tongues of flaming first licking and then spreading over the ceiling in less than 10 seconds.
The only sign of the fire at the core of the watered tree, even at the 30-second mark, is a stream of smoke and hints of fire through its thick coat of needles. By the two-minute mark it isn’t even clear if it is still burning.
The entire room surrounding the dry tree is on fire at that point.
The fires in the video were set intentionally to prove a point about keep trees fresh with frequent watering, but Bouch said they also point out the other side of the holiday fire safety equation: Even a dry tree doesn’t spontaneously combust. Something must catch it on fire, and those somethings should be avoided and kept apart from the tree, starting with any open flames.
“There are old traditions from overseas where live, actual burning candles were placed on the tree,” Bouch said. “That’s something that is just a horrible idea.”
Christmas tree lights may be beautiful, but strands — especially older ones — should be inspected for any cracks in the insulation, Bouch said, which could cause both electric shocks to people or pets and electric arcing that could start a fire.
Strands of lights and extension cords should also be used according to their instructions, he said, and extension cords should not be daisy-chained together to create a longer cord.
“Do not overload or misuse the multi-plug adapters,” Bouch said. “They are not designed to be used as multiple extension cords to get to some where.”
It’s also important to use the right type of extension cord or lighting depending on where you are decorating, according to Kristin Nieberlein, senior deputy and spokeswoman for the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
“With any outdoor lighting, make sure any extension cords they use are for outdoor use,” she said. Lights or cords designed for indoor use are not appropriate outside.
Another thing to check is your home’s smoke alarms, according to Bouch, who noted the Gamber fire company recently responded to a fire where the home owner was able to escape because his smoke alarms woke him up before the fire had spread too far.
“You not only want to make sure they work but you want to make sure they are newer,” he said. “Once a smoke alarm reaches 10 years of age, it should be entirely replaced with a new smoke alarm.”
And for battery only smoke alarms, those installed without being hardwired into the home’s electric system, Bouch noted that a new law taking effect Jan 1 requires they be replaced with 10-year sealed battery smoke alarms.
“They eliminate the whole 9-volt battery changing every year and everything,” he said. “If you go to sell your home, that’s something inspectors will be looking for.”
Properly prepared for the worst, but keep that tree watered for the best, it will likely last from after Thanksgiving until after Christmas, Bouch said. Then there is just one more responsibility related to the Christmas tree.