Think fire safety during holiday season

by Kimberly L. Wright
Air University Public Affairs

12/3/2010 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- It's getting to be that time of year again, when halls will soon be decked, trees will be trimmed and hams will be baked. It's also the time of year for fire hazards.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, fires occurring during the holiday season each year kill more than 400 Americans, injure about 1,650 and cause more than $990 million in damage. The following tips from James K. Smith, assistant chief of fire prevention for Maxwell-Gunter Fire Emergency Services, and the U.S. Fire Administration can prevent common holiday fire hazards.

Christmas trees
In addition to being a source of holiday spirit, Christmas trees and other holiday decorations can be a source of holiday danger. Dried-out trees ignite easily and can spread flames rapidly to flammable items nearby.

To keep a live Christmas tree from becoming kindling, the U.S. Fire Administration suggests selecting a fresh Christmas tree and making sure it is kept in water at all times.

"For live Christmas trees, choose a tree with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched," Mr. Smith said. "Cut one to two inches from the base of the tree trunk before placing the tree in the stand." Place your Christmas tree in a safe place, at least three feet away from fireplaces and heat vents that may dry out the tree. Don't put a tree up too early or leave it up longer than two weeks.

Artificial trees should be flame-retardant.

"Unattended cooking continues to be the leading cause of kitchen fires," Mr. Smith said.

Keep children and pets at least three feet from the stove, all combustible items away and pot handles positioned so they cannot be bumped off the stove accidentally by someone walking through the kitchen.

Mr. Smith encouraged cooks to keep a lid close by when they're cooking with grease.

"You can smother small grease fires by sliding the lid over the pan and turning off the stovetop," leaving it covered until it has cooled, said Mr. Smith. If something catches fire in the oven, turn off the oven and keep the door closed.

After small grease fires and oven fires, call 911. In case of large kitchen fires, evacuate the home and call 911 after leaving the home.

"Do not attempt to extinguish it," said Mr. Smith. "Close the kitchen door if you can. ... Meet the fire department upon arrival and brief the crews on the incident."

Lights, candles, action
Inspect holiday lights before use to make sure wires aren't frayed and the insulation and sockets are intact. Don't leave the lights on when away from home or asleep, and make sure to use lighting approved by a testing laboratory. Check the wires periodically to make sure they aren't warm to the touch.

"Do not place lights on metal Christmas trees because of the high fire and electrical shock hazard they present," said Mr. Smith. Don't overload electrical outlets. In most cases, avoid linking more than three light strands. Do not use anything other than clips to hang lights.

"Using nails can damage the electrical cords," cautioned Mr. Smith.

Structure fires caused by open flames increase during the holiday season, partly because of the increased use of candles for religious or decorative purposes, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

If you use candles, ensure they are in stable holders and place them where they cannot be easily knocked down. Place menorahs and candles away from vents and at least 12 inches away from flammable materials. Never leave them unattended or put candles on a Christmas tree.

Keep candles away from hair, loose clothing, children and pets, and keep candles out of bedrooms, advised Mr. Smith.

Smoke detectors
Test smoke detectors monthly, and change the batteries at least every six months if batteries are required. Doing it during the time changes each year is an easy way to remember, noted Mr. Smith.