The winter holidays are beloved for the warmth and light they bring to a cold, dark season. But this wondrous time of year isn’t free from danger. According to the American Red Cross, almost 47,000 fires occur during the winter holidays, taking over 500 lives, injuring thousands of people, and resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
Fortunately, many holiday fire risks can be minimized with a little care and planning. Here’s how to avoid some common causes of holiday fires.
1. Be Safe with Christmas Trees
Place trees (and fir wreaths and garlands) three feet away from heat sources like fireplaces and radiators, and never use lit candles to decorate a tree. (Use battery-operated ones to achieve that effect.) Check that artificial trees, as well as decorations, are made of flame-resistant or flame-retardant materials.
If decorating a live tree, choose one that is freshly cut, with intact needles, and water it daily to prevent it from becoming dry. Once it does begin to dry out and drop needles, it’s time to discard your tree. Although Christmas tree fires are not common, the explosiveness of dry trees makes them very dangerous if they do occur.
Use a tree stand that can’t tip over and be sure to unplug tree lights overnight and whenever you leave the house.
2. Give Candles Their Distance
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports that 56% of candle fires happen because something flammable is left too close to a burning candle. Always keep candles at least a foot away from anything else that could catch fire like ornaments or curtains. (Give other sources of heat, like portable heaters, even more space.)
If placing candles in windows, choose battery-powered lights. Don’t leave candles burning when you’re asleep or away from home; in fact, you should extinguish flames whenever you leave the room. Whenever you burn candles, place them in sturdy holders that can’t tip over, and situate them where they are unlikely to be accidentally knocked over.
Place menorahs, kinaras, and decorative candles on a non-flammable surface like a granite countertop; if you must use a wood surface, lay aluminum foil or another flame-resistant material down first.
3. Inspect Your Fairy Lights
If buying new light strings, check the label for proof that the product has been tested at a reputable independent laboratory. You might also want to consider LED lights; they’re safer than their incandescent counterparts.
Also check labels before stringing lights indoors or outdoors to make sure you’ve selected the right type. With any string of lights, be sure that the cord is not frayed or damaged, and that all bulbs are working and tightly connected.
Don’t string together more than three strands of lights or 50 bulbs, and connect your lights to a surge protector before plugging into the wall. Turn off and unplug lights when you’re asleep or away from home. When stringing lights outdoors, don’t nail or staple them, as this can damage the wires. Always make sure to follow the instructions from the manufacturer.
4. Beware of Kitchen and Cooking Fires
Always keep a close eye on what you’re cooking, and be vigilant about removing potentially flammable items like oven mitts, wooden utensils, or food packaging from your stove-top. Never leave the house while the oven is on. When deep-frying latkes or any other holiday treat, always protect your skin from hot oil, and remember that grease fires should be extinguished with baking soda, not water.
Also consider that outdoor cooking carries its own risks, especially if you’re using a large deep fryer for your Christmas turkey. Make sure to use your deep-fryer a safe distance from the house, and don’t over-fill it with oil.
5. Keep an Eye on Boxes and Gift Wrap
Leaving boxes, wrapping paper, tissue paper, and embellishments lying around means that there’s even more flammable material in your home that could come in contact with a candle or heater. So, clean up the aftermath of present exchanges in a timely manner. And don’t attempt to dispose of gift wrap or trim by sticking it in the fireplace – it can be made from materials that release dangerous fumes when burned.
6. Tend to Lit Fireplaces
If you don’t use your chimney often, have it inspected ahead of time to ensure it’s in safe working order. Burn only dry and seasoned wood, and use a screen to keep sparks from escaping into the room. Never leave a burning fire unattended, and don’t hang Christmas stockings or garlands on a fireplace that will be used to burn fires. Keep anything flammable, from gifts to slippers to throw rugs far (that is, at least three feet) away from the fireplace.
7. Don’t Underestimate the Heat of Smoldering Embers
Long after a fire has burned out, its ashes can remain dangerously hot. Leave embers in the fireplace (damper open) until they’re cool to the touch, then place them in a metal container and leave it outdoors, away from your house, for at least 24 hours. Dump embers on a non-flammable surface like gravel, rather than on leaves or in the woods, just in case they’re still holding on to any heat.
8. Use Electronics Responsibly
During this busy season, you’re more likely to use appliances and electronics while distracted by other activities going on around the house. You can reduce the risk of a home fire during the holidays by following the same rules that you normally would at other times of the year. Also, be aware of heaters and don’t leave them unattended. And do not string multiple extension cords together, run cords under carpets, or overload your electrical outlets with more than they can handle.
9. Don’t Neglect Matches and Lighters
These simplest of fire-starting tools might seem insignificant compared to large candles or wood-burning stoves, but they can be deadly, especially when handled by curious children. The USFA warns that the number of deaths that results when children play with fire doubles in the month of December. Make sure to keep matches and lighters safely out of reach.
In addition to the steps above, you can reduce the chance of a holiday fire by making sure you’ve installed smoke alarms that are in working order throughout your home. Pay especially close attention to children and pets when they’re in the kitchen or around electronics, holiday decorations, and open flames.