GIMME SHELTER- Bright Christmas: Light it, don't burn it down

Stephen Walton
Fire Marshall, Charlottesville Fire Department
Q: Trees, lights, candles, roaring fires...Christmas can be a fire safety nightmare! Any tips to keep the holidays safe?

A:With Christmas trees, fire safety starts when you buy one. Go ahead and shake the tree and watch for falling needles. If a lot of crisp needles fall out, choose another tree. At home, keep your tree well-watered and away from heating ducts or other heat sources to prevent it from drying out. (You'll also want to keep all Christmas greenery away from children and pets, as it can be poisonous.) After the holidays, make sure to remove your tree as soon as possible, as a dried-out tree in your house can be asking for trouble.

Although it might seem obvious, there's no substitute for following the manufacturer's directions for installing and maintaining your Christmas lights. Also, make sure you don't overload your electrical cords. If they feel warm to the touch, there's probally too much power running through the cord. Try reducing the number of lights or stringing another cord. Finally, use only cords and lights for their specific purpose, and make sure the lights are listed by a testing lab like UL or FM.

Candles make the holidays special, but if you're not careful, they could ruin it as well. Although it may look beautiful, never put candles in windows! Keep them in proper containers, away from anything combustible, and out of reach of children and pets.  

If you have a wood stove or fireplace, don't burn your wrapping paper in them, as it will float up and get stuck in the chimney or flue. When ignited, wrapping paper burns hotter that most chimneys are designed to handle, and that can cause a chimney fire and extend to other parts of your house. 

Of course, it's always a good idea to make sure your smoke detectors are working properly before you start preparing for the holidays. 

Finally, take care to dispose of hot ashes properly. Ashes from your fireplace, even though they look like they're out, can remain hot enough for several days to start a fire. It's best to keep them in a metal container, making sure they're completely cool before you spread them around your lawn or shrubbery.

Stephen Walton