Don’t get needled by holiday fires this season

Christmastime is very much here. Stockings are hung, Santa wish lists mailed and the centerpiece of the season – a lush, green Christmas tree – sits in the living room, awaiting its yearly endowment of presents. But while Christmas trees serve as many families’ nerve center for holiday cheer, they can also pose a fire hazard, fire officials say.

Gerry Maiatico, fire marshal for Warren County, said there are a variety of factors that can lead to a fire and a less than merry Christmas.

“When it comes to a live Christmas tree, … the fuel load that it provides to a room becomes devastating,” Maiatico said. “Particularly what makes that tree real hazardous is (the fact) our smoke alarms are designed to provide us early warning of a small fire that starts small and spreads at a normal rate. A fire that involves a Christmas tree and particularly a dry Christmas tree, the smoke alarms activate too late. The fire has doubled or tripled in size in seconds.”

Maiatico said that not only can trees exacerbate a small fire, but can also be the ignition source themselves, catching fire quicker than a lump of coal.

“In Warren County and Front Royal, we typically see fires where the Christmas tree was the first item ignited (by something that) typically involves heating the home,” he said. “We have a space heater spaced too close to the tree – that type of thing, that is what we’ve seen in the past in our area.”

However, lovers of Christmas need not fret. Maiatico said that while Christmas trees may introduce a fuel source not usually present in most houses, proper maintenance and attention can greatly reduce any risk.

“A live Christmas tree that was purchased with fresh, green needles that was properly maintained in the home doesn’t readily combust,” he said. “It’s when we don’t take care of the tree and it becomes dry and brittle, that’s when we start to see very fast flaming fire. An artificial tree, while safe, you have to treat those with the same precautions as a live Christmas tree. You should use one that has gone through rigorous safety testing.”

Maiatico stressed the importance of keeping the area around space heaters completely clear of combustible material, saying that during the winter, heating-related fires are all too common. Two other common causes can sometimes be a direct result of the holiday season.

“We also see an increase of electrical fires – decorations within our home, outside our home and the normal appliances,” he said. “We’re overloading our electrical outlets and we’re overloading the appliances that we’re using. … this time of year we see an increase in cooking-related fires. We have people cooking the holiday meal, baking, so we see an increase in those types of fires as well.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com.