Judith A. Wakefield
December 9, 2003

Preventing Holiday Fires

The holidays are approaching and many homes are decorated in their honor. However, some holiday decorations can easily cause a fire: decorative light bulbs plugged in for extended periods, candles burning unsupervised, and dry trees can cause a fire in your home. Here are some tips to prevent a fire caused by holiday decorations:

Make sure you only use light strings with the UL mark. The Underwriters Laboratories Mark on a product means that UL engineers have tested representative samples of the product for risk of fire, electric shock and other hazards. You also have to remember to follow the manufacturerís instructions when using light strings and other electric holiday decorations.

Check each string of lights before you use them to make sure they will be safe to use. Inspect the light strings for broken lights or sockets, wire that sticks out or loose connections. Discard any strings of lights that are damaged. Donít hang metal foil "icicles" over wires on tree lights.

Do not leave holiday lights on while the house is unoccupied or while the occupants are sleeping. A fire caused by holiday lights can be put out faster when the occupants are home and awake. Consider buying a timer for your holiday lights. This will ensure the lights do not stay on for unnecessarily long periods of time.

Do not burn candles unsupervised. Keep any flammable objects, such as draperies, paper or fabric holiday decorations, away from lit candles.

If your holiday decorations include a fresh tree, make sure the tree has plenty of water so that it does not dry out. A dry tree decorated with lights can easily catch fire. Donít put a fresh tree in front of the air ducts or near the tv set - these tend to dry them out.

If you use holiday lights outdoors be sure they are labeled for outdoor use. Green tags on light strings means the light strings should only be used indoors. The red tag indicates the light strings can be used both inside and out.

Never staple or nail through the light strings or electrical cords. This could damage the wire or insulation, which could cause an electric shock or fire. And donít run an electrical cord through water.

Place your holiday decorations so that small children or pets do not disturb them. For example, dogs and cats can knock over candles, chew on electrical cords, or chew on trees. Small children may accidentally pull or push the tree over.

If you have small children in your home (or will have them visiting) it is best to a avoid using glass ornaments until the children are older. Glass ornaments break easily and could cut a child or a pet. There are plastic ornaments on the market that look almost like the glass ones, they are safer to use. Anything on the lower tree limbs can be considered fair game by children and pets. Try to put unbreakable ornaments and those without sharp points or small detachable parts on the lower branches where children and pets can reach them. Avoid trimmings that resemble candy or cookies. A child will try to eat them!

Before you put your lights on the tree, check the cords. On some sets one string plugs right into the next string. Plug the connected strings of lights in for 15 or 20 minutes. If the one that goes to the electrical source gets hot it means there are too many strings connected for the size of the wire. Separate them into two strings and use two extension cords. If an extension cord gets hot there are too many strings of light plugged into it. Heavy duty extension cords can carry heavier electrical loads safely than the thinner wired cords. Make sure any extension cords used outdoors are labeled for outdoor use.

If you have newly purchased lights (or the labels are still attached) you can check the wattage rating marked on the label attached to the cord. Add up the wattage ratings of all the cords that are to be plugged into each other. The total wattage rating of the lights should be lower than the wattage rating of the extension cord you use with them. Those orange heavy duty extension cords are ugly but safer to use than the thinner-wired extension cords.

Donít put extension cords across "traffic" areas. The cords can trip someone or someone could pull the tree over by catching the extension cord with their foot. Cords should not be run under carpets or rugs. Also, donít unplug extension cords (or other electrical cords) by pulling on the cord, hold the plug itself.

The holidays have a higher burglary rate. If you usually have all the interior lights off when you are not at home it is a good idea to get a timer to have your lights go on and off on their own so the house doesnít look unoccupied. Make sure all windows and doors are securely locked when you are not at home. A high percentage of burglars enter homes through unlocked windows or doors.

Donít leave poinsettia plants where young children can reach them. Live poinsettias, fresh holly and mistletoe berries can be poisonous if eaten in large quantities. Also remember that chocolate and tinsel are dangerous to dogs.

Donít forget - planning for safety is a lot smarter than not planning and having the possibility for tragedy!