Holidays Bring Added Threat of Home Fires

November 26, 2004

For many Americans, Thanksgiving marked the official start of the holiday season, which means more cooking, entertaining, and decorating. It also marks the time of year when many fires are started as a result of careless decorating.

While candles, tinsel, and holly can add a bit of holiday magic to a household, nearly one third of all residential fires occur during the winter months, according to the National Fire Protection Association, resulting in billions of dollars in property damage as well as thousands of injuries and deaths each year.

Holiday candles are reportedly one of the leading causes of these fires – in fact, the greatest number of home candle fires happen on Christmas Day, and many occur on Thanksgiving. “Many fires occur when holiday decorations, such as centerpieces, come into contact with a lit candle. This is why it’s important to consider fire safety when using candles as part of your holiday decorating,” said Marty Ahrens of the National Fire Prevention Association. “Always remember: every lit candle is an open flame.”

Winter house fires can also start from many other sources: too many holiday lights plugged into an outlet, portable heating devices, or roaring fireplaces. However, there are precautions that homeowners can take to keep the home fires burning safely.

“The fact is, many of these fires are preventable, if the proper precautions are taken,” says Bob Smith, MetLife Auto & Home’s chief claim officer. “To help avoid a tragedy, it’s important to review the basics of fire safety – it only takes a few minutes and it could save a life.”

Holiday fire prevention tips

— When it comes to seasonal decorations, there are many ways for the holidays to go “up in smoke” — literally. If celebrating the season with a live Christmas tree, select one that is fresh and water it regularly. Keep it away from heat sources and exits. If using an artificial tree, make sure it’s flame-resistant.

— Deep-frying turkey on Thanksgiving Day is becoming an American tradition, but be warned: there is the risk of severe injury and property damage from using gas-fired turkey fryers. Fryers can easily tip over, spilling up to five gallons of hot oil, and if a partially frozen turkey is dunked into the fryer, the oil can spill over and cause an explosion. Without automatic thermostat controls, the units can heat the oil to the point of combustion.

— Never burn a discarded Christmas tree, wreath or branches in the fireplace. A Christmas tree can be very oily and may damage the fireplace. More important, dry trees burn hot and fast, and often release sparks. Just one spark could ignite a carpet or window coverings.

— With plenty of electric lights and decorations set to illuminate the holidays, it’s important to remember not to overload wall outlets and extension cords. Use a power strip where possible. If one must use an extension cord, be sure it is appropriate for the lighting — for example, do not use an indoor extension cord to run exterior lights. Only purchase UL-approved lights, and never use frayed or damaged strings, or mix indoor and outdoor lights. Always remember to unplug the holiday lights (inside and outside of the house) at bedtime and before leaving home.

Fireplace and wood-stove safety tips

— Keep a tight-fitting screen on the fireplace and obtain a professional inspection annually before use. People should also have the chimney cleaned on a regular basis to remove any debris.

— If one has a wood-burning stove, make sure there is ample clearance between the stove and any combustible materials. Burn only dry, well-seasoned wood, and dispose of the ashes in a closed metal container outside the house. Do not burn trash in the stove – this can start a chimney fire. Finally, never let a wood fire burn unattended or overnight.

— With any type of heater, such as an electric space heater or portable kerosene heater, use common sense. Always keep the heater away from flammables and – although it may be tempting, especially in snow-prone areas – never accelerate the drying of clothes by placing them on top of the heater. Think twice and use a drying rack instead. Finally, have the heater serviced often.

To help property owners obtain a refresher course in fire safety, MetLife Auto & Home offers a free brochure called “About…Fire Safety,” which is part of the Life Advice series. It contains information on a number of fire-related subjects, including how to plan an escape route, seasonal safety tips, and safety information related to heating a home. The material can be obtained by calling 1-800-MET-LIFE (1-800-638-5433), or visiting and choosing “Family.”

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