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Holiday season: Spark joy, not a fire

A Christmas tree with twinkling lights and sparkly decorations brings cheer during the longest, darkest days of the year — unless those lights or decorations spark a fire. From trees and lights to candles and fireplaces, the holiday season brings increased potential for residential fires. But a few simple tips can keep your home and family safe.


While cooking is still the leading cause of fire during the holidays, 0.12% of all residential fires per year involve a real or artificial Christmas tree. That’s according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which keeps track of statistics on tree-related fires south of the border.

Almost half of those tree fires are related to lighting or electrical issues, and nearly one in five is sparked by decorative lights. Another one in five fires is started because a heat source was too close to the tree — such as a candle, radiator, space heater or fireplace.

However, a tree will never spontaneously combust, so preventing the cause of a fire is key. And not everyone celebrates Christmas or has a tree in their home — so these simple precautions will ensure everyone stays safe and prevents fires, no matter what their traditions.

Here are some tips to avoid a fire in your home this holiday season:

Avoid a Charlie Brown experience

If you’re buying a real tree, you probably want the freshest-looking one on the lot — not a Charlie Brown tree. But aside from aesthetics, there are practical reasons to choose a vibrant green tree: brownish needles mean it is dry and, therefore, more flammable.

Most trees on a lot will be fresh, but you can test the needles before you buy. Fresh pine needles will bend (not break), while fresh fir needles should snap when folded, according to the Puget Sound Christmas Tree Association. And check the bottom of the trunk; if it’s sticky with resin, it means the tree is fresh

Placement is key

Once you’ve brought your tree home, set it up at least three feet away from heat sources, and ensure that it’s watered regularly. The reservoir at the base of the tree should always have water in it, which will keep the base of the tree moist.

But don’t forget about it. Once the presents have been opened and the festivities are over, it can be easy to neglect the tree — but you should continue to water it until it’s removed.

Fake trees are still a real threat

While you don’t have to worry about an artificial tree drying out, it still poses a fire hazard. Just because a tree is labelled “fire retardant” doesn’t mean it won’t go up in flames — it just means it will burn more slowly.

But, like a real tree, it won’t spontaneously combust; it needs a spark. If you’re buying an artificial tree, check that the product is approved by a nationally recognized testing lab such as ULC (Underwriters’ Laboratories of Canada) or CSA (Canadian Standards Association). That means the product has been evaluated and certified for fire and shock hazards.

More details: UL (Underwriters’ Laboratories) has done extensive research on the fire risks posed by pre-lit artificial trees and, subsequently, created requirements for certification (UL 2358 and UL 588) that help consumers choose safer products.

Shine a light on certifications

Lighting is a bright part of most holidays. Whether you’re buying Hannukah lights, a pre-lit artificial tree or adding your own string lights around the house for seasonal decorations, those lights should also be certified by ULC or CSA.

Make sure you’re buying the right lights for the right location. Some are certified for indoor use (ideal for bannisters, trim and around your tree), while others are certified for outdoor use (which can withstand the elements).

Don’t skip the inspection

Faulty lights could spark a fire, so maintenance is critical. Each year, check your string lights for any loose connections, broken bulbs or fraying wires. If there’s any damage, fix or replace the lights. For those who put lights on their house, you may also consider hiring a professional to install your exterior lights.

And while Clark Griswold did it with amazing results (eventually), don’t overload your electrical outlets, daisy-chain extension cords or use indoor extension cords with your exterior lights. All of these can cause overheating and spark a fire.

Keep an eye on candles

Candles are popular this time of year, especially during Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas, or to create a warm, cozy atmosphere complete with winter scents of pine, gingerbread or candy canes. But these candles are also a fire hazard. In fact, the NFPA says more than one-third of home decoration fires are started by candles. And Christmas day is the peak for candle fires (roughly 2.5 times the daily average).

Avoid burning candles near any combustible materials, such as wrapping paper or presents, holiday decorations or a tree skirt. Or play it safe and invest in flickering LED candles. For those who celebrate Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, you may also switch to electric menorahs and kinaras instead of traditional candles. But if you use traditional candles, ensure they’re placed on a non-flammable surface to catch melting wax.

Fireplace safety

A fireplace can set a festive mood, but use a screen to prevent embers from drifting onto the floor or carpet. And never burn wrapping paper in the fireplace. The ink used on gift wrap could give off toxic fumes. That wrapping paper also burns quickly and intensely, which could result in a flash fire.

Condo safety

Many condos prohibit hanging wreaths or other festive decorations on your door or in the hallway outside your unit. Your building manager isn’t being a Scrooge — rather, these items could be in violation of the provincial fire code. In the event of a fire in your building, items like this would fan the flames.

Condos also typically have rules around Christmas trees. Live trees may be banned, as dragging trees down hallways and through common areas can spread dried-out needles, which is a fire hazard. But if real trees are allowed in the building, there are likely rules around proper disposal. It’s important to stick to these rules — as trees will dry out over the holidays and become more of a fire hazard to your unit, the building and the safety of all residents.

Eat, drink, be merry and stay safe

Over the holidays, you may be entertaining guests, and it’s easy to get distracted — taking your eye off fire hazards. While cooking, stay in the kitchen so you don’t lose track of time while visiting with relatives in the living room. Or at least set a reliable and loud alarm on your phone, watch or kitchen timer that everyone will hear. It’s one thing to burn the turkey — it’s another to burn down the house.

By staying aware and following some basic safety precautions, you can significantly reduce the fire risk over the holidays. You’ll protect your home, family, guests, pets and neighbours — so everyone can have a safe and happy holiday season.

And, of course, make sure you have the right insurance coverage and protection in place. Speak with your insurance broker to review the details of your policy and update it as necessary. Happy holidays!


Read next: Are condo fires on the rise? How you can prevent them


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