Christmas Tree Fire Safety

I like this time of year. I still get excited about the first big snowfall. Our place already looks like a Christmas card and for the first time I can remember, the lake has frozen over before the end of November.

Winter came early this year.

Winter came early this year.

I confess, by end of February I’ll have had enough, but right now it’s beautiful. And though I have been known to utter “bah humbug” in a gridlocked shopping mall parking lot, I really do love Christmas.

I love the music. I love getting together with friends and family. I love the sense of reflection and the family rituals, like decorating the tree with my wife Liz. At some point Liz will leave hanging decorations on the higher branches to me and start playing carols on the piano. That’s my favorite part. I love listening to her play.

But in the back of my mind I always wonder, “Is it going to happen again this year? And how bad will it be?”

Notice the blackened stump of a Christmas tree.

Notice the blackened stump of a Christmas tree, bottom center.

Those of us in the emergency services, police, paramedics and firefighters, deal with tragedy every day. Somehow though, it seems to cut a little deeper at this time of year.

The National Fire Protection Association in the US estimates that an average of 210 house fires start with Christmas trees every year. The toll is staggering: an average of 24 deaths and over $13 million in damage annually. Those figures are proportional for Canada. All of this for something that’s supposed to bring joy and happiness, and almost all of it preventable.

xmas tree4No sane person would place a bucket of gasoline in the corner of their living room. What most people don’t understand is that a DRY Christmas tree is essentially the same thing. An average sized burning scotch pine will give off 5.2 megawatts of energy. That’s more energy than what’s produced by the average railway locomotive. To understand what that means in practical terms, watch this video, produced by the US National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST). Within 40 seconds the entire room is blazing and the smoke is down to the floor. You literally have only seconds to escape.

The key is prevention. Modern artificial trees are specially treated to be fire retardant, so they’re a good choice. If you’re a traditionalist, like me, and need to have a real tree, then you need to keep it well watered. I cannot stress the watering enough. The NIST, the same folks who made the video, did an experiment with a tree that had been cut and kept in a watered stand, at room temperature. Even after three weeks the tree would not sustain a fire.

Here are some simple safety rules for natural Christmas trees:

1)      Cut your own tree. It will stay fresh and green, and therefore safer for longer. It also makes a great family outing.

2)      If you buy your tree from a lot, then cut 5 cm or two inches off the bottom before you bring it into the house. Then place the tree in a watered stand as soon as possible. The cut will sap over again in a few hours, so the same applies or if it’s more than a couple of hours from when you cut your tree down until you bring it inside.

3)      The average tree will consume about 4 litres, roughly a gallon, of water per day, so get a stand that holds at least that much. The tree will consume more water in the first day or two, so check the stand frequently in the christmas tree

4)      Check the water level at least once a day. Posting a check list on the fridge or beside the coffee maker is a great idea.

5)      Place your tree away from radiators, vents and any heat source that might dry out the tree.

6)      KEEP CANDLES AND ALL OPEN FLAMES AWAY FROM THE TREE. This seems like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised. Keep a flame-free zone around the tree equal to at least 1 ½ times the height of the tree. Remember trees can fall over and accidents do happen.

7)      Check your lights and extension cords to make sure they’re in good condition. The bulbs themselves won’t cause a fire, but cracked wires and loose connections can cause shorts that will. And never run extension cords under a rug or carpet.

All the usual safety rules still apply too: never leave candles burning unattended; turn the stove off if you have to leave the kitchen, even for a moment… And above all, though it’s the party season, please don’t drink and drive. It’s just not worth it.

Please be safe this holiday season. Hopefully Santa will be the only one showing up to your house in a big red vehicle.santa fire truck

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