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Put a Freeze on Winter Holiday Fires

Monday, December 21, 2020 | 11:17am

Throughout my years in fire service, I have worked many holidays as a firefighter and seen the impact of winter holiday home fires firsthand. From Thanksgiving to New Years, it’s time to enjoy our favorite holiday traditions and make new memories. While the holiday season brings an increase in decorating with lights, fireworks and CDC recommended appropriate gatherings, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s office asks that you continue to be fire aware.

Decorating for the holidays comes with special family traditions for many Americans. Unfortunately, one of every four home Christmas tree fires are caused by electrical problems or by placing a heating source too close to a Christmas tree. When decorating this season, ensure the tree is at least three feet away from fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or decorative lights. When Christmas tree fires do occur, they are more likely to be serious and grow large very quickly. On average, over 71% of residential structure fires caused by decorative lights occurs between the months of November and January.

When choosing your Christmas tree, if it is live, make sure to choose one with fresh, green needles so that they do not fall off when they are touched and be sure to cut two inches from the base of the trunk before placing it in the tree stand. When placing the tree in the stand, be sure that the tree is not blocking emergency exits such as windows or doors. Once placed in the tree stand be sure to add plenty of water daily to ensure the tree does not dry out.

When you begin decorating, choose decorations that are flame resistant and inspect your decorations for broken cords or loose bulb connections. Additionally, read the manufacturer’s instructions for the number of light strands that can be connected as you do not want to overload the power strip. When placing outdoor lights, be sure to use clips – not nails – to hang your decorative lights so the cords do not get damaged and become exposed. After your tree is decorated, be sure to always turn off the Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed.

If you are celebrating Hanukah or Kwanzaa this holiday season, consider the possibility of purchasing an electric menorah or kinara as these are less likely to cause fires. However, if you prefer traditional candles you can still celebrate in a fire aware manner. For example, be sure to keep flammable items, including curtains and holiday decorations at least 3 feet away from your candles. Also, remember to place your menorah or kinara on a non-flammable surface to catch the melting candle wax, such as a tray lined with aluminum foil and be sure to never leave your lit candles unattended.

After the holiday season has concluded, if you have a live Christmas tree, you should consider that dried-out trees are a fire danger and should not be placed in the home, garage or outside against your home. You should also bring outdoor electrical lights inside for storage after the holidays to prevent potential fire hazards from occurring.

When it comes to holiday entertaining, remember to always check the latest CDC guidelines on in-person gatherings amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, prior to your guest’s arrival, please test your smoke alarms and if you do not have any installed you can find out more about the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Get Alarmed, Tennessee campaign here. Be sure to inform your guests about your home fire escape plan and meeting zones if a fire does occur during the holiday event.

Nothing takes the chill off winter holidays like the light and heat of a fire on your hearth. If you decide to turn on your fireplace, be sure to keep the fuel away from wrapping paper, rugs, clothing and pets. Additionally, use a fire screen to keep embers and logs from escaping. Lastly, make sure all embers are fully extinguished before you and your guests turn in for the night.

Unfortunately, last year, an ember from an operating fireplace landed on a live Christmas tree and was to blame for the deadly house fire that killed multiple members of a Tennessee family. Though the Christmas tree was the main source of fuel, the fire also quickly consumed wrapped presents and living room furniture. There was only one smoke detector located on a wall on the second floor where the family was sleeping and no working smoke alarm on the first floor where the fire started. As a reminder, it is vitally important to have a working smoke alarm on every level of your home in order to have time to escape and save the lives of your loved ones.

With the New Year quickly approaching, it is important to remember standard firework safety measures. Did you know that more than 19,500 reported fires are started by fireworks annually?  Unfortunately, children ages 10–14 have the highest rate of firework injuries. The only safe way to view fireworks is to attend a professional show and with many professional firework shows being canceled this year due to the ongoing pandemic, it is important to know that fireworks are not fire safe in the hands of consumers.

This winter holiday season keep these fire aware tips in mind to put a “freeze” on fires in Tennessee. On behalf of the entire Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office, we want to wish you and your loved ones a safe, healthy and happy holidays.

Gary Farley serves as the Assistant Commissioner of Fire Prevention at the Department of Commerce and Insurance and Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office.