Christmas trees bring holiday fire hazards

By Tristan Bennett
Delta Digital News Service

LONOKE – With the holiday season upon us, large fire hazards enter homes across America in the form of festive decorations.

The tradition of the Christmas tree dates back to the 16th century, and many still prefer a live tree over today’s artificial models. Truth is, both could be a hazard in homes. Jennifer Winchell, a Little Rock firefighter, experiences many fires each year due to holiday decorations.

She said, “Christmas tree fires are a huge issue because most people consider them to be safe and do not educate themselves about the dangers.”

Read on for some tips from the pros on how to stay safe this holiday season.

Hydrate your tree

   Live trees need near-constant watering. Patty Hibbs’ husband owns Schilling’s Family Christmas Tree Farm in Lonoke, and she works in their office. She said they work all year to ensure the freshness of each tree on the lot.

“It’s a year-round job. We have to water them, fertilize them; my husband has to sheer them three times a year,” Hibbs said.

After cutting the tree from its roots, the job becomes much harder. Hibbs said cutting causes the sap in trees to seal the trunk, making it more difficult to get water in.

Get your tree in water as soon as possible to keep it from sealing and drying out. The drier the branches become, the higher the chance of a fire. Most purchase tree stands that hold water to help with this, but the owner must remember to keep the stand filled with fresh water. Pets may also get into a tree’s water supply, so be sure to keep an eye on them.

Becky Smith and her family purchase a live tree each year from Schilling’s.

“We keep it watered. Sometimes I put Sprite in the water,” she said. “It gets dry by the end of the year, but we’ve never had any problems with it.”

The citric acid and sugar in Sprite may help preserve the tree longer, and it is not harmful to pets.

Be sure to dispose of the tree properly as soon as possible after the holidays.

Keep away from heat sources

The traditional picture of the Christmas tree next to a crackling fireplace may be the cause of many holiday fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association, one in four holiday fires occurs because of a heat source too close to a tree.

One stray ember could send the whole tree up in flames, so make sure to leave adequate room between any fire, including candles and the tree.

Hibbs recommends not placing your tree under a heating vent as well. Hot air dries out branches as it heats, making the chances of a fire increase.

Winchell said, “If you’re using a space heater, try to buy one with an automatic shut-off or tip over feature. Keep it at least three to four feet away from anything that could catch fire.”

She also said blowing out candles and unplugging lights when going to sleep or traveling helps to prevent overheating, which may cause fires.

Look for electrical hazards

The holidays often lead to crowded houses full of loved ones, but never crowd outlets. Circuits within those outlets only hold so much electricity, so plugging in one too many strings of lights may cause overheating in the wires. As the insulation on the wire melts, sparks may appear.

If the spark happens near a Christmas tree, whether live or artificial, it could ignite.

Winchell said, “It is very important to never overload a wall outlet or an outlet strip. Less is best!”

The NFPA recommends immediately replacing strings of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections and only connecting the number of strands recommended by the manufacturer of the lights.

Consider flocking

Flocking not only helps achieve the look of a snowy Christmas tree indoors, but it also protects against fires when done with the correct products.

Hibbs said, “It’s not like the spray can you get. It’s a commercial based flocking we use, and it does have a flame retardant in it.”

Schilling’s charges $9 per foot to flock a tree with their high-quality materials, but if someone wants to do it on their own, they should look for a product with a flame retardant included.

Be prepared

Christmas tree fires prove damaging nearly every time and sometimes even deadly. If something goes wrong, stay calm.

Winchell said, “If there is a fire, immediately remove anything you can (outside is best), and always have a charged fire extinguisher in reach.”

She also said look at batteries in remotes and light strings to check for corrosion.

The NFPA recommends regularly checking smoke detectors and sharing an escape plan with holiday guests. Ask guests who smoke to step outside and keep their materials on them and out of reach from children as well.

Note: Feature photo shows Schilling’s Family Christmas Tree Farm. The farm has been operated by the family for over 33 years. Photo by Tristan Bennett