Christmas tree fires: Know the risks and how to celebrate safely
It’s the season for Christmas trees.
As Canadians celebrate with family and friends, experts are sounding the alarm about potential dangers, as fire accidents are quite common during the holiday season.
“One in five fires is caused by a natural Christmas tree during and around the holiday season,” said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC).
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Besides cooking, candles are another major cause of holiday fires, according to James Donaldson, a fire safety officer at the University of Toronto.
He estimates that around 200 fires involving Christmas trees and lights occur across Canada each year over the course of the winter season — fires that are sometimes fatal.
At least five people were killed by dry Christmas trees catching fire in Ontario during the 2020-21 winter season, according to provincial officials.
In Toronto in particular, Christmas trees ignited three fires in 2019 and two in 2020.
In Halifax, NS, on Christmas Day a few years ago, emergency response teams were busy responding to about 20 emergency calls, including two significant building fires.
Also in 2020, a fire on Christmas Day caused $300,000 in damage to two homes in the Riversdale neighborhood of Saskatoon. No injuries were reported.
In addition to Christmas trees, increased use is made of heaters, candles, electrical cords, tree lights and other decorative decorations during the holiday season.
All of these factors contribute to a higher prevalence of fires, the Toronto Fire Department’s Public Information Office said.
After two years of COVID restrictions, more people will be hosting and having guests around in 2022.
Experts say it’s important to have an escape route plan and a well-functioning smoke alarm system in the home.
In the United States, 160 home fires started with Christmas trees, resulting in an average of two civilian deaths, 12 civilian injuries, and $10 million in direct property damage each year between 2015 and 2019, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Better awareness and home fire safety systems have led to a reduction in Christmas tree-caused fires in Canada, McMullen said, but there is still an “additional risk factor.”
When picking your Christmas tree, there are a number of things you can do to ensure safety and find the right tree suitable for keeping around the home.
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McMullen advised choosing a tree that was cut most recently, as trees dry out over time and become susceptible to fire.
“We always want to make sure the pine needles that are hanging from our Christmas trees … stay on the tree,” he said.
Checking the underside of the tree for sap is a good indicator of how fresh the tree is, Donaldson said.
Branches should be flexible — meaning they can bend without the needles detaching, he said. You can shake the branches or run your hands along them and even smack the tree on the ground to make sure the needles don’t fall off.
Christmas trees are very flammable, especially when they become dry and brittle, so they should be watered daily, experts say.
“This dry Christmas tree is actually quite a dangerous situation that we don’t want people to be caught off guard by,” McMullen said.
Donaldson said that many residential buildings are only allowed to use artificial trees, so the first thing to do is make sure you’re even allowed to bring a live Christmas tree home.
As part of its holiday fire safety tips, the CAFC advises people to keep their Christmas trees at least three feet away from heat sources such as fireplaces, radiators, candles or stoves.
The tree should not block doors, windows, or other escape routes to allow for easy escape in an emergency.
A solid stand should secure the tree — and if you see it wobbling, a guide wire can be used to secure it to the top of the ceiling, Donaldson said.
More than a third of home decor fires are started by candles, according to the NFPA.
That’s why the CAFC is urging Canadians to stop using real candles in their Christmas decorations and go “flameless” this season.
Those who choose to use candles are advised to keep them at least 12 inches away from anything combustible, says CAFC.
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The City of Ottawa advises residents to keep candles in a sturdy container away from pets and children and blow them out when leaving the room.
Lighting the trees must be approved by the Canadian Standards Association, officials and experts say.
Donaldson recommended installing a maximum of 100 lights per foot of tree. So a six-foot tree shouldn’t have more than 600 lights, he said.
LED lights use less electricity and generate less heat, so they’re a great option for Christmas decorations.
Old and frayed wires can cause an electrical spark, McMullen warned, and so strings with visible signs of breakage or wear should not be used.
Residents are also reminded not to overload extension cords and power strips – if more outlets are needed, a licensed electrician should install them.
To ensure safety, all decorative lighting should also be turned off at night before people go to bed.
After the holiday season is over, Christmas trees shouldn’t be stored in and around the home, especially in a garage that might have heat sources like vehicles and heaters, experts say.
Most communities have a Christmas tree recycling program. People should contact their local authorities and dispose of their trees safely in a designated location.
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The maximum time to hold the Christmas tree up before it can become unsafe is “four weeks,” Donaldson said.
“They can’t just be left lying around in and around your house until you think you’re going to dispose of them yourself during the summer months,” McMullen said.
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