Operation Decoration 2005: Keep That Spark of Holiday Cheer From Igniting Tragedy

Northbrook, IL – Christmas trees are among the most common holiday decorations for the coming yuletide, with 27 million live trees and 9 million artificial trees sold last year. But without proper safety in mind, they can also cause tragedy this holiday season.

“Celebrating the holidays involves a number of potentially hazardous situations if the right safety steps are not taken,” said John Drengenberg, manager of Consumer Affairs for Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the not-for-profit safety testing organization. “Christmas trees, for instance, are significant fuel sources that we bring into our homes every year.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Christmas trees were the items first ignited in an estimated average of 310 reported U.S. home structure fires per year in 1999-2002. These fires caused an average of 14 civilian deaths, 40 civilian injuries and $16.2 million in direct property damage per year. These statistics include both real and artificial trees.

On average, one in every 22 reported home Christmas tree fires resulted in a death.

“More than four of every 10 home Christmas tree fires are caused by an electrical problem or malfunction,” said Judy Comoletti, assistant vice president for public education at the NFPA. “One in four Christmas tree fires resulted from a heat source placed too close to the tree. Candles were the heat source in 8 percent of these incidents. Seven percent were started by children playing with fire.”

And there are plenty of other tragic accidents occurring during the winter holidays that don’t involve Christmas trees:

  • Each year, 12,500 people are treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to holiday decorations;
  • An estimated average of 2,300 home candle fires were reported each December in 1999-2002; 11 percent of the December candle fires began with decorations.

“These are preventable tragedies,” said Comoletti, who advised that all candles be extinguished whenever you leave the house or go to bed. “The most common causes of candle fires are candles burning too close to combustible materials, such as mattresses or bedding, furniture, curtains or walls, or candles left unattended.”

UL also reminds consumers to inspect light strings for cracked sockets and frayed, bare or loose wires. Look for the holographic UL Mark on light strings and electrical decorations. The UL Mark means that UL engineers have tested samples of the product for safety hazards. If you’re decorating outside, also be sure that all decorations and extension cords are rated for outdoor use. Lights intended for indoor-only use have green holographic UL Marks. Light strings intended for indoor and outdoor use have red holographic UL Marks.

“Damaged or misused electric light strings and extension cords, if left unchecked before you put them up, can deliver shocks and potentially cause home fires,” Drengenberg said. “If they are damaged or have frayed wires, you should buy new ones. They are relatively cheap and incredibly good insurance for keeping your holiday season safe.”

Finally, with 5,800 fall-related injuries during the holidays, ladder safety should be observed. Set ladders on firm, level surfaces and use the proper ladder length -outdoors, the ladder should extend 3 feet over the roofline. You should have someone hand you decorations whenever you are on a ladder, and only one person should be on the ladder at any time.

When the holidays are over, take down your lights. Light strings are not meant to be up more than 90 days. Any longer and the resulting damage could eventually cause a shock or fire hazard. And remember, even well-watered trees dry out after four or more weeks, so they should be taken down soon after the holidays.

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