Oh, Christmas Tree: Stay hydrated and don't catch fire!

December 17, 2010

Whitney Blair Wyckoff

(Flickr/rbrwr)
How big a fire threat is a natural Christmas tree?

'Tis the season for Christmas tree public safety announcements.

Just last week, the New York City Fire Department held a demonstration showing how easily a Christmas tree or a Menorah can spark a fire.

The city's fire commissioner told the New York Daily News that he decided to opt for an artificial tree after seeing the demonstration. "I just didn't feel comfortable with a real tree in my house," he said.

But are Christmas trees -- real or fake-- really that much of a threat?

On the surface, the numbers don't seem too menacing. Each year, Christmas trees play a role in about 250 fires and 14 deaths, and cause more than $13.8 million in property damage, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.

But John Drengenberg, director of consumer safety at Underwriters Laboratories, says Christmas tree safety is no joke. "Just one death is too many," Drengenberg says.

The National Fire Protection Association agrees that Christmas tree fires aren't too common, but "when they do occur, they are likely to be unusually serious." By the association's count, one out of every 18 Christmas tree fires in the home results in a death, while only one out of 134 regular home fires results in a death on average.

The National Christmas Tree Association, which represents Christmas tree growers, isn't too keen to demonize the tree. It counters that newspapers and magazines are 13 times more likely to start a fire in a person's home.

Even though the warnings are serious, forgoing or tossing out the Christmas tree fortunately isn't necessary. Drengenberg, who says he plans to put up both real and artificial trees in his home this year, has a few tips for people who want a real tree, but who don't want to see it conflagrate:

  1. Start with a fresh tree. A Charlie Brown Christmas-type tree just won't do. To see if a tree passes muster, run your hand over its branches. If a lot of needles come off in your hand, it isn't fresh enough.
  2. Hydrate your tree. After you make a fresh cut at the bottom of the trunk, put the tree in water, and water it daily. A dry tree goes up in flames more easily than a watered one. For proof, check out the harrowing Underwriters Laboratories video below.
  3. Keep your tree away from heat sources that can dry it out. And make sure it doesn't block escape routes.
  4. Pitch the tree when it reaches old age. Even if you water them, trees usually last a maximum of four weeks.

Plastic trees can be dangerous too, Drengenberg says, in part because they burn extremely hot and extremely fast. That means you may have less time to get out. But, compared with real trees, it takes longer for them to ignite.

If you fancy plastic, Drengenberg recommends buying flame-resistant or flame-retardant artificial trees. But he notes that there's no protocol associated with these labels -- it's just something that a manufacturer evaluates.

But for those who would like more assurance that the only holiday flames in the house come from the fireplace or the mistletoe, Underwriters Laboratories says it will have a rigorous test for artificial trees by Christmas 2012. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.