Christmas Lights Can Have Dark Side


With temperatures dipping into the 40s at night, the holidays and colder weather have prompted many Orange County residents to stoke cozy fireplaces and string Christmas lights on their homes.

“The lights are beautiful and the fireplaces are warm and cozy,” said Kathleen Cha, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department. “But we in fire prevention are looking for a worry-free holiday season.”

Cha said that two fires over the weekend caused concern among fire officials. One caused $2,000 damage to a fireplace and living room in a Laguna Niguel home, and another caused $50 damage when an overloaded extension cord for Christmas lights burned through a carpet.

Although both fires were minor, Cha and other officials believe that there is a lesson to be learned.


Fullerton Fire Chief Ron Coleman said stories like those surface year after year: A frayed light cord causes a Christmas tree fire; a candle left burning unattended causes thousands of dollars in damage; a child is rushed to surgery after swallowing broken bits of a glass ornament left within reach of his curious hands.

“The really sad thing is that these stories could have been prevented if people had only taken the time to think about safety,” Coleman said.

For example, the fireplace incident occurred after residents put a large, commercially manufactured log into a tiny gas fireplace.

“There are a lot of different kinds of fireplaces out there. Some are decorative fireplaces, and others are just too small to put in large logs,” Cha said.


She said that heat from the fire roared out, causing damage to the home. Another problem is that too many residents treat their fireplaces as incinerators, burning wood, cardboard, newspapers and trash, she said.

“These fireplaces are not meant to handle cardboard and trash that burns explosively. Literally you have a rush of heat and flames coming out. Curtains have caught on fire. Sofas and rugs have caught fire just from the heat of a fireplace,” Cha said.

She advised that residents burn oak, hickory, birch, walnut or other hard woods that burn cleaner and longer. Woods such as eucalyptus, cypress and pines burn quicker and have oils that, when burned, cling to chimneys as creosote.

In the carpet fire, Cha said residents had used a multiplug adapter that overloaded an extension cord and caused a short in the circuit.


“It happened about 6 p.m. The people came home and unplugged the cord, but it was so hot that it burned right through the carpet,” she said. “Fortunately, they were home.”

She suggests using a grounded outlet strip with an on-and-off switch. In addition, she advises against plugging in more than three strings of lights per extension cord.

In rain or foul weather, she advises leaving the lights off. And turn them off when you leave home, she says.

One rule with extension cords is that when they feel hot to the touch, they are not the right size and the circuit is overloaded, she said.


“Usually with the holidays people are distracted and they just turn the Christmas lights on and leave the house,” Cha said. “The Christmas tree is dry, and gets drier after Christmas Day. You need to pay attention.”

Christmas Light Tips

Despite what you might think, even mini-lights generate heat. The more lights used on a Christmas tree, the faster it will dry out. Trouble usually occurs after Christmas Day, when trees are drier and people continue to leave the lights on unattended.

Make sure strings of lights are UL-listed. That means that they have passed certain safety tests at Underwriters Laboratories.


Do not use lights labeled for indoor use outdoors, or vice versa. Outdoors, make sure lights are labeled “weatherproof.” In foul or windy weather, avoid risks and leave lights off.

When installing exterior strings of lights, never nail or tack through the wiring. Special brackets are available to secure lights.

Check old and new lights for frayed wiring, broken plugs and loose bulb sockets. If a light bulb is out, replace it. An empty socket or one with a bad bulb can cause a short, which can cause a fire.

Use extension cords sparingly and do not plug in more than three strings of lights per single extension cord.


A grounded outlet strip with an on-and-off switch, available in hardware stores, is safer than extension cords when you have to plug several strings of lights into one socket.

Bubbling lights are an attraction to children, who may grab them, break them and drink the fluid. Make sure this type of light is out of the reach of small children.

Never use lights on a metallic tree. A faulty string of lights could cause the tree to become charged with electricity and create a danger of electrocution. Use a spotlight.

Source: Kathleen Cha, spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department.