Make Fire Prevention a Holiday Tradition

Look closely—these pretty candles actually are battery-operated, and they're safer than open flames. Read on for more tips to prevent home fires during the winter holidays.

Battery-operated candles

Our winter holidays brighten the dark days of December with flickering candles, colorful light displays, a roaring fireplace, and something delicious bubbling on every burner of the stove.

But fire safety experts warn us that the holidays are peak season for home fires. We need to be watchful for fire hazards—not so easy when we are distracted with guests, busy with preparations, stressed out, or helping to care for small children or senior loved ones with mobility challenges or memory loss. And perhaps we've had a couple of eggnogs? Review these fire safety reminders ahead of time to help keep the holidays happy—and fire-free.

Candles. From Christmas candles to the Hanukkah menorah, Kwanzaa kinara, candle crown of Santa Lucia Day, and candlelit luminaria of Las Posadas, many traditional winter celebrations feature candles. Candles lend a beautiful light to our homes—but it's important to take precautions any time we're dealing with an open flame. Fortunately, we've abandoned the practice of equipping our Christmas trees with real candles, but firefighting professionals wince that candles surrounded with greenery continue to be a favorite. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) encourages the use of battery-powered flameless candles. But if you choose traditional candles, they advise to select holders that are sturdy and won't tip over. Keep candles at least a foot away from anything that could burn. Extinguish candles when you leave the room; if your tradition calls for letting them burn down on their own, make sure someone is around until they're out. And never leave children or pets alone with a burning candle.

Fireplaces. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the Yule log, guests gathered around the hearth—the fireplace is a traditional element in our most-beloved holiday imagery. If you plan to use your fireplace during the holidays, have it inspected beforehand. Keep the Christmas tree, other greenery and Christmas stockings safely away. Never burn wrapping paper in the fireplace. Be sure fires are out before you go to bed. If young children are present, supervise them closely—or maybe it would be better to reserve the fireplace for Santa's entrance? If, like so many of us, you have a big screen TV in the living room, deck the halls in a high-tech way by playing a virtual Yule log video.

Christmas trees. Every Christmas, hundreds of fires are caused by Christmas trees, say experts at the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). The USFA says that an artificial tree is safest, but if your heart is set on a natural tree, be sure to select one that is fresh. (You can tell it's fresh if the needles don't fall off easily.) Cut the trunk at a 45-degree angle at the base and place it in water. The tree stand should be full of water at all times—most trees need at least a gallon per day. (If you don't want to crawl through the branches and over the presents to reach the tree stand, equip your tree with a long tube and funnel.) Keep the tree away from candles, the fireplace, heat vents and other heat sources. Inspect light strings for frayed wire or other defects, and turn them off when you're not around. Discard the tree promptly as it dries out; the NFPA reports that almost half of all Christmas tree fires occur in January.

Lighting. These days, many folks go all out in decorating for the holidays. Drive around and you'll see an extravaganza of lights, with homeowners vying to create the most over-the-top displays. But it's important for these festive folks to take safety precautions. Every year, faulty or improperly used holiday lighting leads to fires. Select the right light for the right job—indoor, outdoor or for holiday trees. All lights should include a label indicating that the product was evaluated by a recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL). Inspect strings of lights carefully for damage. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for use. Don’t overload extension cords. And turn off lights when you leave home or go to bed.

In the kitchen. Experts tell us there's an increase in kitchen fires during the holidays, so this is a great time to review a few safety tips. According to the NFPA, unattended items on the stovetop cause most of these fires, when cooks are distracted with entertaining guests, setting the table or opening presents. Set a timer to remind yourself to check on simmering pots and pans. Move flammable materials such as potholders and wooden spoons away from burners. Does your family deep-fry the turkey? The USFA says to do it outside, at a safe distance from the house and any flammable materials.

Deck your halls with safety features! Install fire extinguishers and additional smoke alarms. Replace old space heaters with new, approved models. These items make great holiday gifts for loved ones, as well. Last but not least, create a family fire safety plan as one of your New Year’s resolutions.

For More Information

The U.S. Fire Administration provides a set of holiday fire safety consumer outreach materials, as well as information for older adults.

The National Fire Protection Association offers information and videos to help consumers avoid fires from decorations and cooking accidents.

Photo: U.S. Fire Safety Administration, FEMA

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