Don’t get burned by your Christmas tree

  • Published
  • By Eric T. Hoehn
  • Safety Office, 88th Air Base Wing

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Oh -- The holidays are a time when families gather and celebrate traditions. For many, one of those traditions is the Christmas tree.

While this is by far among the most popular, it can also be one of the deadliest.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, Christmas trees account for 200 fires annually, resulting in six deaths, 25 injuries and more than $6 million in property damage. Typically, shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters and matches start tree fires.

Well-watered trees are not a problem. Dry and neglected trees can be.

It happens fast

For our purposes, we will say a family has purchased a fresh Scotch pine Christmas tree. They have decorated it with lights, garland and other objects. What they have not done, though, is properly water it.

After a week of not watering it, our family goes to sleep and fails to unplug the lights on their tree, which is nothing more than a big Christmas matchstick at this point.

During the night, one of the lights shorts out. Within five seconds, the fire extends up the tree and black smoke with searing gases streaks across the ceiling. Fresh air near the floor feeds the fire. The room’s other combustible materials ignite prior to any flame contact.

Within 40 seconds, “flashover” occurs (when an entire room erupts into flames). Oxygen is depleted – and dense, deadly toxic smoke engulfs the scene.

Needless to say, this family will not be having a happy holiday.

Water makes all the difference

Wet trees tell a different story. For comparative purposes, National Institute of Standards and Technology fire safety engineers selected a green Scotch pine, had it cut in their presence and an additional 2 inches taken off the trunk’s bottom, and placed the tree in a stand with at least a 7.6-liter water capacity.

The researchers maintained the Scotch pine’s water on a daily basis. A single match could not ignite the tree. A second attempt, in which an electric current ignited an entire matchbook, failed to fire the tree.

Finally, they applied an open flame to the tree using a propane torch. The branches ignited briefly, but self-extinguished when researchers removed the torch from the branches.

As NIST fire safety engineers say: REMEMBER, A WET TREE IS A SAFE TREE!

Don’t take chances this holiday season. If your tradition includes a Christmas tree and you choose to have a real one, make sure it’s watered daily. If you have an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire retardant.

Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory. Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use, but not both.

Following these simple tips can help make sure you have a merry Christmas and safe, enjoyable holiday season.

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