‘Tis the Season for House Fires—Don’t Be a Statistic

The holidays can present a perfect storm for disaster. Heed this expert advice to keep your home and family safe during the most joyful time of year.

By Terri Williams | Updated Dec 14, 2020 9:54 AM

house fire in winter during holidays

Photo: istockphoto.com

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. However, it can also be a potentially dangerous season. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Christmas trees, candles, and other holiday decorations can all cause house fires that result in deaths, injuries, and property damage. In addition, this is the time of year when people are using more space heaters and cooking equipment, both of which can also burn down a house in the blink of an eye. What follows are some tips to ensure that your home doesn’t become a fire statistic during the holiday season.

Decorating Dos and Don’ts

According to the NFPA, 44 percent of house fires are the result of placing decorations too close to a heat source, and 45 percent of Christmas tree fires involve distribution or lighting equipment. “Only use electrical decorations and lights that have been approved for safe use by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL),” advises Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI).

In addition, he recommends carefully inspecting your electrical decorations and lights before you use them. “Loose connections, wires that are loose or bare, and sockets that are cracked or frayed can cause shocks and may also start a fire.” In addition, decorations should be at least three feet away from any type of heat source, including fireplaces and space heaters.

holiday lights hanging on house

Photo: istockphoto.com

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Be Mindful of Power Sources

We get it, you have a lot of festive decorations and you want to power them all. However, makeshift solutions can compromise your home’s safety. “Never connect more than three strands of incandescent lights together, and consider purchasing LED lights, which use less energy and run cooler than incandescent lights,” Brenner says. Also, avoid running cords under rugs, or placing them where they could be pinched in doors or windows, which could damage the cords and also cause a fire.

It’s also important to make sure your outdoor lights can handle the weather. “Water and electricity don’t mix, so be sure all outdoor illuminations like light strings are rated for outdoor use or properly protected,” advises Mark Dawson COO at Mister Sparky. “Be sure to never exceed the recommended wattage, and plug outdoor electrical equipment into ground-fault protected circuits.”

dead mini christmas tree holiday decor

Photo: istockphoto.com

O’ Christmas Tree

More than 1/5 (22 percent) of Christmas tree fires occurred when something was too close to the tree, according to the NFPA. “When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness, since a fresh tree will stay green longer and will be less of a fire hazard than a dry tree,” Brenner says. So, how important is it to keep your tree watered? “In a reenactment conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a dried-out tree reached ignition temperature and burst into flames in less than a minute. However, a tree that had been thoroughly watered burned at a much slower rate. If you’re purchasing an artificial tree, Brenner recommends checking to see if it has a fire-resistant label.

Christmas tree fire safety is particularly important if it includes holiday lights. “Trees decorated with holiday lights have an increased risk because they’re in direct contact with an electrical source,” Brenner explains.

After the holidays, consider disposing of (recycling) your tree as quickly as possible. According to the NFPA, 29 percent of Christmas tree-related home fires happen in January—probably because people are lax about watering them after the holidays.

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Candle in the Wind

Who doesn’t like apple, evergreen, and other types of holiday scented candles? In addition to a marvelous scent, they also provide a soft, warm glow. However, the NFPA reports that 51 percent of home decoration fires that occur in December are started by candles. And on Christmas Day, candle fires occur at a whopping three times the daily average. So, what causes candle fires? Being too close to flammable objects, including decorations, furniture, curtains, and bedding.

Keep candles far away from other items, keep the wick trimmed, and never leave candles unattended.

holiday candle on fire

Photo: istockphoto.com

Provide Space for Your Space Heaters

The holidays coincide with a drop in temperatures, increasing the use of space heaters. However, according to the NFPA, 43 percent of home heating fires (and 85 percent of associated deaths) are related to space heaters. “If you need to use a space heater to stay warm, consider the safety features of the unit, the size of the area you want to heat, and the energy efficiency of the heater,” Dawson says. You should also unplug it when not in use, and especially when you’re not at home. “It’s also important to keep combustibles like holiday decorations and curtains at least three feet from the heat source,” Dawson explains.

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A Recipe for Disaster

Can you guess the three most common dates for cooking-related fires? According to the NFPA, they’re Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Eve. Bob Tuck, franchise owner of Mr. Appliance of Port Charlotte, Naples, Lee County, and Asheville, provides the following tips:

  • Never leave stoves in use unattended.
  • Use a timer as a reminder that you have something cooking or baking. You can easily do this on your cell phone, or by using the kitchen-timer feature available on most microwaves. Always include a second timer as a reminder when cooking on your cooktop or in the microwave during those busy holiday preparations.
  • Get to know your new microwave before trusting its automatic cycles, as each microwave heats differently and can possibly start a fire.
    Don’t wear loose clothing around appliances with open flames.
  • Always confirm that you have turned the correct burner on.
  • Keep pets away from cooking surfaces.
  • Never attempt to open your oven door during the self-clean cycle. It is normal to have small flames in the oven during this time.
holiday cooking oven on fire

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Avoid a Fire in Your Dryer

You probably didn’t have dryers on your holiday fire bingo card, but according to Jason Kapica, president of Dryer Vent Wizard, people tend to wear heavier clothing in the winter, and may have larger loads of laundry when the family gathers for the holidays. “Thicker and newer fabrics used during the holidays create problems for dryers; heavier fabrics like new holiday sweaters, blankets, and napkins create more lint, which can get trapped in the dryer vent.” And this excess dryer lint could start a fire. “One of the simplest tasks to reduce the risk of dryer fires is to empty the lint screen before every load,” Kapica says.