Scott Buchanan is setting up an artificial tree in his home this year, for the first time. He expects it will be safer.
“The fake ones have to go through certain testing,” he said last week. “All lights and electrical stuff are all tested and up to the standard.”
In previous years, Buchanan, a Cortland Fire Department captain, used a potted, living tree for Christmas as a safer alternative.
“But they dry out no matter how much you water,” he said. “Look at forest fires: They’re still alive and they burn.”
Decking the halls and lighting the Christmas tree brightens up homes for the holidays, but also leads to hundreds of house fires every year in the United States, National Fire Protection Association data show.
“Fires involving natural trees outnumber fires involving artificial trees by roughly two to one,” states a 2020 report by the National Fire Protection Association.
But a little precaution — watering trees, monitoring holiday candles, inspecting lights — can prevent many of the fires.
Fresh cut trees
“The fresher cut they are, the more moisture there is and the safer they are,” Buchanan said.
Before you put the tree up, make a fresh cut at the base of a Christmas tree’s trunk so it can stay watered, said Mike Steigerwalt, owner of Balsam Ridge Tree Farm in Cortlandville. Trees use sap to cover any cut, and if not kept in water, the sap will prevent moisture from getting inside the tree.
“Before placing the tree in the stand, cut 2 inches from the base of the trunk,” the National Fire Protection Association recommends. “Make sure the tree is at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights.”
Trees should be watered daily, according to the association.
Keep trees watered and in a cool place away from direct heat, Steigerwalt said. “It should last several weeks through the holiday.”
“There’s a lot of candles this time of year,” Buchanan said; don’t forget them. Buchanan uses an alarm to remind himself. “Every time I light a candle, I set a timer.”
About 7,400 home fires started with candles every year from 2015 to 2019, reports the fire association.
“These fires caused an average of 90 civilian deaths, 670 civilian injuries and $291 million in direct property damage,” it reports. “Candle fires peak in December and January with 11% of candle fires in each of these months. Christmas is the peak day for candle fires, with roughly 2.5 times the daily average.”
Inspect the holiday lights, the fire association suggests.
Lights can wear out over years of use, Buchanan said. Cords shouldn’t run under rugs, where they can wear and fray. Don’t plug too many strings into each other and use a surge protector, especially in older homes with few outlets. Be sure not to use indoor lights outside. Don’t use staples to hang lights, as the metal staple can damage the cord.
“Then they can short circuit or create an arc or spark,” Buchanan said.
“Replace any string of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections,” the fire association recommends. “Read the manufacturer’s instructions for number of light strands to connect.”
“One in five home decoration fires occurred in December,” the association reports. “The decoration was too close to a heat source such as a candle or equipment in more than two of every five incidents.”