In National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation,” Buddy Griswold loses sight of Uncle Lewis for a moment while the family’s eating dinner. Meanwhile, Uncle Lewis decides to light a cigar right in front of the Christmas tree. In this short sequence the cigar sparks a fire that takes down the entire tree, and a chunk of the carpet. The comical moment ends with a roasted living room and hint of smoke in the air, but it’s an otherwise uneventful Christmas tree burning.

Though “Christmas Vacation” did correctly portray a fire igniting because of a flammable object being too close to a Christmas tree, they failed to portray the severity of a Christmas tree catching on fire.

Christmas trees can catch fire via nearby candles, broken bulbs or wires, or an overloaded power outlet. And the last way anyone wants to spend their holiday is cleaning up or avoiding a disaster caused by the object that was meant to bring good cheer and symbolizes the holiday season.

Who are the Culprits?

There’s a few guilty parties that take credit for most of the fires that happen around the home during the holidays. Simple precautions and awareness of danger zones can prevent a disaster.

Homeowners must also know the culprits and how to stop them:

The Christmas Tree

Between 2009-2013 the U.S. fire department responded to an average of 210 home fires that started with christmas trees per year. They caused an average of seven deaths, 19 injuries, and 17.5 million in property damage annually the NFPA says.

Many people across the country love purchasing their live Christmas trees for the holiday season. It’s a family tradition to go out and pick a tree and place it in the home. These trees look beautiful and smell good, but they’re prone to drying out and causing a fire. Here’s how to avoid that:

  • Trees need to have fresh, green needles that aren’t shedding.
  • If needles start dropping from the tree it means that it’s drying out.
  • Water the tree daily and know how much water it needs.
  • Cut two inches from trunk before placing tree in any stand.
  • Make sure it’s at least three feet away from any heat source. This includes fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights.
  • Don’t let the tree block an exit.
  • Don’t ever use lit candles as decorations for trees.
  • Always turn off lights before you go to bed.
  • Get rid of a dry tree from the house, it is never worth the risk.
  • Don’t place dry trees outside of the home for disposal. Contact local recycling groups to know where to send them.

An easy way to eliminate a lot of the risk of Christmas tree fires is by simply purchasing a plastic tree. Plastic trees are also capable of causing an incident, but they will only do so if other factors are involved.

The Holiday Candles

The NFPA says that between 2009-2013, 9,300 home structure fires were started by candles. This resulted in 86 deaths, 827 injuries, and $374 million in direct property damage. How do you prevent an incident?

  • Blow out every candle if you leave the room or go to bed. Avoid placing candles in rooms where people may fall asleep.
  • Keep candles 12 inches away from anything that burns.
  • Make sure candle holders are sturdy and won’t tip over easy.
  • If you’re lighting a candle, keep your hair and clothes away from the flame.
  • Don’t ever use a candle if there’s oxygen in the room.
  • Dont use candles during a power outage or storm as a substitute for flashlights or battery powered lighting.
  • Don’t leave kids unattended in rooms with candles, and don’t ever let them have access to matches, lighters, or any flammable materials. Make sure these materials are always out of sight.
  • Use flameless candles near flammable objects.

Fast Fact: The top three days for home candle fires were Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Christmas Eve.  

The Decorations

The NFPA says an average of 860 home structure fires occurred via decorations not involving Christmas trees from 2009-2013. This caused an average of one death, 41 injuries, and $13.4 million in property damage annually.

  • In nearly half of these fires the decorations were too close to a heat source (45%).
  • One-fifth of the fires started in the kitchen (20%), and one out of six started in the living room, family room or den (17%).
  • Keep anything that can burn away from flame sources (like stockings near a fireplace), at least a foot or more.
  • Don’t overload electrical outlets, especially with a bunch of lights.
  • Look at light boxes for the maximum number of light strands to connect.
  • Lights that are worn down, broken, or have loose bulbs need to be replaced.
  • Indoor and outdoor lights need to be approved by labs like the UL, ETL, or ITSNA.
  • Electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in 38% of home Christmas tree fires.

All statistics provided by the NFPA.

Additional Safety Checklist

The holiday season is one of the best times of the year. Families come together to enjoy festivities and one another’s company. The last thing anyone wants to deal with is an emergency situation. Simple preparation can ensure that you are on top of whatever danger can potentially be posed.

Smoke and CO Detectors

Regardless of the time of year, smoke detectors are a vital part of any safe home checklist. Make sure yours are working properly by checking on them once a week by pressing the test/reset button, and place one on every floor or sleeping zone. Have your CO and smoke alarms been tested?

Fire Escape Plan

It’s important for your family to have a plan in case of a fire emergency. Plans should include a fire extinguisher to put out containable flames, or a proper evacuation strategy in case of an emergency. If your family has children, pets, or older loved ones, make sure to include them in your strategy.

Emergency Kit and Preparation

Hand-in-hand with a fire escape plan is an emergency kit. Kits are quick supplies that can be grabbed and carried out of the home in the event of a sudden emergency. It’s also important that kids know how to dial 911 if they’re ever faced with a situation, and make sure that house numbers are clearly visible for responders to identify your home.

Safety Checklist Questions

  • Do portable space heaters have an automatic shutoff?
  • Has the furnace been professionally inspected?
  • Has the chimney been professionally cleaned and inspected?
  • Have appliances been checked for worn out cords?
  • Have you checked the dryer exhaust vent for lint build up?
  • Is there at least three feet of space between space heaters and other objects?
  • Do kids know to stay three feet away from space heaters?
  • Do you turn off space heaters overnight or when unattended?
  • Are space heaters plugged directly into an outlet?
  • Do you always use a fire guard in front of burning fire?

Have a happy holiday and help other families avoid potential hazards in the home.

Statistics provided by the National Fire Prevention Agency (NFPA).

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