The holiday season should be merry and bright, not devastating and gloomy.  However, each year, holiday fires claim the lives of more than 500 people and cause over 2,000 injuries. Cooking and decorations are the leading cause of the nearly 47,000 home fires that occur during the winter holidays. It is important to know what you can do to keep your friends and family safe while entertaining for the holidays.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are the leading dates for home structure fires.  NFPA also reports that from 2013-2017, Christmas trees were the cause of over 150 home fires, and that one out of every 22 home fires started by a Christmas tree resulted in death.  It is not just the tree that is a hazard.  Holiday decorations caused nearly 800 home fires.  Each year candles are responsible for 60% of December home decoration fires.  This is a significant total compared to the 30% of fires ignited by candles for January through November.  Also concerning is that nearly 40 home fires are caused each day during the holidays by children.

There are several steps you can take to keep your family and friends safe while you deck the halls.  The most important measure you can take to protect your loved ones is to have working smoke alarms.  Smoke alarms double your chances of survival in a fire, so remember to test them each month to confirm they are working. You should install a smoke alarm near your kitchen, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms. Replace smoke alarm batteries at least once a year.

Carefully decorating your home can help make your holidays safer.  Always keep your windows and doors clear of decorations so you can easily exit your home in an emergency.  Place Christmas trees, candles, and other holiday decorations at least three feet away from heat sources like fireplaces, portable heaters, radiators, heat vents, and candles.  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the number light strands you can safely connect and verify that they are safe for indoor or outdoor use.  Nails can damage the cords, so avoid using them, and replace any string of lights that have worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections.

Although Christmas tree fires are not common, when they do occur they are much more likely to be serious. Christmas trees become increasingly flammable as they continue to dry out in your home. In fact, almost 30% of house fires that begin with Christmas trees occur after the New Year.  Faulty lighting equipment can be blamed for starting almost half of all Christmas tree fires.

Your local firefighters have several suggestions for safely trimming your tree this year.  Of course the safest tree is an artificial one, but if you prefer the real thing, be certain that it has fresh, green needles that aren’t easily broken. It is important to water your cut tree daily to keep it as moist as possible.  You should also take some precautions to prevent your Christmas tree from tipping, including using a sturdy stand and placing your tree in an area that is out of reach of curious pets and children.  Frayed electrical cords are dangerous because they can spark and start a fire, so inspect your lighting before you string them on the tree.  Even though your Christmas tree looks beautiful all lit up at night, it is important to unplug it before going to bed or leaving the house.

Safe holiday entertaining is largely about cooking with caution. NFPA recommends that you keep an eye on what you fry.  This means that you should stay in the kitchen when you are preparing your holiday feast and treats.  It can be helpful to use a timer to remind you to check your food and avoid a culinary disaster.  If you need to leave the kitchen even for a short period of time, turn off the stove.  Maintain a kid-free zone that is at least 3 feet around the oven and stove at all times, and make sure matches and lighters are out of reach of children.  Pot holders, oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, food packaging, and towels or curtains can easily ignite, so keep them away from your stove top.

If you have a small grease fire on the stovetop, you can simply slide a lid over the pan to smother the fire.  An oven fire can quickly be extinguished if you turn off the heat and keep the oven door closed.  Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen if something other than food catches fire.  If you have any doubt about fighting a small fire, get out and stay out!   Call 911 immediately and wait for your local fire department to extinguish the fire. 

Enjoy the holidays and rest assured that your loved ones are safe because you took the time to prepare with safety in mind. For more information about how to keep your holidays merry and bright, visit www.nfpa.org or contact your local fire department.

 Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at askafirefighter@yahoo.com.

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