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Inspector: holiday season comes with increased fire risk

Northwest Guardian

Published: 01:09PM December 6th, 2012

During the holiday season, more festivities with family and friends can also lead to an increased risk of home fires, since cooking, Christmas trees, candle usage and holiday decorations are among the leading causes of home fires, said Ed Chavez, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Fire and Emergency Services fire inspector.

“The most important thing to remember is to always have two ways out,” Chavez said. “Always have a plan.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, Christmas tree fires are a serious, though uncommon business. On average, one in 18 reported home-structure Christmas tree fires was fatal compared to an average of one death per 141 total reported home structure fires.

Chavez encourages the use of artificial trees since they are usually protected by a flame retardant. Some are sold prelit or with prestrung lights. But it’s important to reapply a flame retardant every three to four years, he said, which can be purchased at most craft stores.

When buying a real tree, Chavez said the first question to ask is when the tree was cut. That’s important because after about 18 days, the tree loses roughly 50 percent of its ability to retain water and begins to dry out, he said.

“If you’re noticing that you’re not having to put water in it every day, that’s a sign that your tree is not taking water in,” Chavez said.

An even better option would be to cut down your own tree, either at a local Christmas tree farm or in a national forest. That way, the freshness of your tree is guaranteed, Chavez said. To cut down a tree in a national forest, a permit must be acquired through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. For more information and a list of national forests in Washington state, go to http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/map/state_list.shtml.

When you get it home, Chavez recommends not placing the tree near a doorway. If the tree happens to catch fire, it could block an exit.

“It may be the path of travel, so if something happens you’ll have to go out another door,” Chavez said. “Look at where you’re setting up your tree and just make sure that you have another way out.”

Make sure trees are placed at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, baseboard heaters, heat vents, candles or lights. When stringing lights on a tree, the NFPA recommends using no more than three strands of mini-lights or no more than 50 screw-in bulbs. Remember to turn Christmas tree lights off before leaving home or going to bed, Chavez said.

“Also, make sure you don’t mix lights, like putting indoor and outdoor lights together or putting indoor lights outside,” Chavez said. “There is the potential for indoor lights to short out if they’re placed outside.”

Outside lights should always be taken down after the holiday season is over because wear and tear from the weather can cause electrical problems, Chavez said.

Since unattended cooking is the leading cause of home fires in the U.S., Chavez recommends staying in the kitchen when frying, grilling or broiling food. Check food regularly that is simmering, boiling, baking or roasting, and keep anything that can catch fire away from the stove top. Keep a lid nearby when cooking on the stove top to smother a small grease fire, and in the event of an oven fire, turn the oven off and keep the oven door closed to extinguish the fire, Chavez said.

Chavez also advises keeping a three-foot, kid-free zone around the stove to help protect children from spills and hot liquids. Try to engage children in activities, like puzzles or drawing, to keep them out of the kitchen. A task like setting the table allows children to help, but can be done outside of the kitchen.

Since there are more parties this time of year, Chavez encourages parents to give thorough instructions to babysitters. Go over an evacuation plan with them in the case of a fire emergency, and make sure babysitters have the correct phone numbers for parents and first responders.

Candles are another fire safety hazard this time of year, Chavez suggests using wax burners instead of candles. According to the NFPA, a candle fire in the home is reported every 40 minutes. Be sure to test smoke alarms and change batteries if needed.

“A lot of this is common sense, but common sense this time of year sort of takes a back seat because we want that perfect holiday experience,” Chavez said. “All it takes is one second.”

“We want to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday,” Chavez said. “But if you have an emergency, call 911. We’re only a phone call away.”

For more information about holiday fire safety or for questions concerning holiday decorations in the workplace, contact Don Lane, chief fire inspector, at 966-7156.