Those Yuletide fires

By Karen Zautyk 

Observer Correspondent 

Have you ever seen a Christmas tree go up in flames? If you answered “yes,” I can all but guarantee it was via a video. If you had seen it happen in person, you’d likely not be around to answer the question.

An evergreen, especially a dry one, doesn’t smolder or burn bit by bit. It bursts into flames like a torch, taking with it anything flammable in the vicinity. And then the rest of the room. And the house. If you’d like to see what happens, there’s a video link at On the right side of the page, click on Fire Safety for the Holidays. Which is also what this article is about.

Last week, we sat down with Kearny Fire Chief Steve Dyl and Chief Fire Inspector John Donovan to get some tips on keeping fire-safe during the season.

Trees are at the top of the list.

According to the National Fire Protection Assoc., 48% of home Christmas-tree fires are caused by electrical problems, and a heat source too close to the trees causes 27%.

Even with an artificial tree, you need take care: Be sure it is labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire-retardant.

For live trees, safety begins when you’re choosing one. Make sure it has fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched.

Before placing it in the stand, cut 1 ro 2 inches off the base, to expose fresh wood.

Then, add water to the tree stand DAILY.

Make sure the tree is at least three feet away from any heat source, including fireplaces, heat vents, radiators, candles and lamps. And make sure it is not blocking any exits.

As for lights, use only those labeled by an independent testing lab. And note that some are for indoor use only, some for outdoor, but not both.

Replace any light strings that have worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections. Check for frayed or kinked wires. Connect no more that three strands of mini-lights or a maximum of 50 bulbs for screw-in bulbs.

Lights usually come with instructions. Follow them.

Turn the tree lights off before leaving the house or going to bed.

And NEVER use real candles on a tree.

When the tree starts dropping needles, it’s time to discard it. And when you do take it outside, don’t stand it against the house.

This is also the season when extension cords tend to proliferate. “Extension cords are for temporary use,” Dyl noted. And “if an outlet looks like an octopus,” you’ve overloaded it. Power strips are good, if they are UL listed and if you don’t overload them.

Extension cords should not be run through the back of a door, because the door can damage it if it closes on the wire. And make sure cords aren’t running under rugs or creating tripping hazards.

Outdoor extension cords should be labeled for outdoor use and plugged into an outdoor outlet labeled GFCI (Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter).

Other holiday tips:

If you’re hiding presents from the kids, do not store the gifts in the oven.

Seriously. Dyl said the KFD has responded to fires caused by toys hidden in ovens — as well as pizza boxes and newspapers stored in ovens.

After opening gifts, do not throw the wrapping paper in the fireplace. It tends to create fiery little flakes that could float back into the room.

UL-listed battery-operated candles are a lot safer than real ones. If you insist on decorating with real ones, don’t buy the cheap kind- Cheap tapers, for example, can tend to bend over as they melt.

Don’t leave burning candles unattended. If you go out, put the candles out.

When entertaining, make sure all your guests know how to get out in case of fire. And if you are visiting, especially if you’re staying overnight, make sure you know the safe exits.

As for general winter-time fire safety:

Have your chimney serviced and your boiler/furnace checked.

Do not forget to add water to the boiler.

Do not store things near the boiler or furnace.

Never use an oven for heating.

If you have a portable space heater, make sure it is UL listed and has tip-over protection. Plug it directly into the wall socket. Make sure it is on a non-combustible surface and keep it away from combustibles. And shut it off when you leave the room.

If you have a gas fireplace and you smell gas, do not light it. Call the KFD or PSE&G immediately.


Test your smoke alarms monthly. Make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors – – one of them within 10 feet of the bedroom.

Don’t warm up your car inside an attached garage.

And remember to check that Christmas-tree fire video.

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