Burning Reminder of an Often Deadly Holiday Hazard : Safety: Christmas tree that ignited into $70,000 Anaheim blaze shows how quickly disaster can hit home, fire officials warn.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When firefighters sing "you'd better watch out" during the holiday season, the message is usually about Christmas trees, not Santa Claus.

Cheery Yule trees can turn into deadly firebombs. Firefighters pointed Tuesday to a $70,000 blaze in Anaheim as a grim case in point.

On Monday night, a Christmas tree burst into flames in a condo at 1676 Heritage Circle. The residents escaped serious harm, but the 7:42 p.m. blaze caused damage of $45,000 to the home and $25,000 to contents, said Division Chief Steve Magliocco.

"The cause of the fire was an electrical short," said Magliocco. "When (the residents) went to plug the Christmas tree in, there was an electric spark, and it caused a short in the wires, igniting the tree."

One resident, Sherry Lewis, suffered smoke inhalation and was treated at the scene. It took firefighters about 20 minutes to extinguish the roaring blaze, which did so much damage that Lewis and her husband, Scott, moved out and are living with friends.

Firefighters say that Christmas trees cause such quick, intense fires that frequently people are severely burned and sometimes killed.

In December, 1990, a Christmas tree burst into flames at a two-story duplex in Orange. A 69-year-old woman who lived in the home tried to extinguish the flames and suffered first- and second-degree burns over 15% of her body. She later died of her injuries.

Like this year's Anaheim fire, the fatal 1990 blaze originated with decorative lights on the tree, fire officials said.

Fire safety officials Tuesday emphasized how hazardous it can be for residents to try to put out a Christmas tree fire. It is better to flee the house as quickly as possible and call 911 from a neighbor's home, fire safety officials said.

Dr. Bruce Achauer, director of the UC Irvine Burns Center, said Christmas tree fires are extremely dangerous.

"If a Christmas tree catches fire, you are probably not going to be able to get it out yourself," Achauer said. "Trying to put out the fire yourself would be a foolish thing to do."

Unless people have seen a Christmas tree burn, they can't realize how dangerous it is, according to Anaheim Fire Investigator Scott Van Horne.

"It's pretty spectacular," Van Horne said. "It goes up unbelievably fast. The fires spread so quickly that residents barely have time to exit their homes. Usually a whole house becomes involved in the fire."

Emmy Day, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department, said a Christmas tree can be thoroughly engulfed in flames in only three seconds. Such a blaze usually ignites the rest of the house and causes heavy loss, she added.

"Every year we have a (Christmas tree) tragedy," Day said. "It happens every single year."

Day was among fire officials who urged not turning on Christmas-tree lights unless someone is at home. "If perchance something bad happened, they would be there to see or smell it," Day said.

Since tree lights cause so many fires, fire officials particularly stressed care with use of electric strands.

Magliocco, of the Anaheim Fire Department, said it is wise to use a multiple-outlet wall plug called a ground-fault circuit interrupter. Strands of electric lights should then be plugged into that device. "It acts sort of like another fuse and adds protection," Magliocco said.

The Orange County Fire Department recommended that lights should have a "UL" label, signifying they have been safety-tested by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. County fire officials said that each year people should discard strands of lights that may have become frayed, or contain sockets that have become loose, cracked or broken.

County fire officials said no more than three sets of lights should be used on a single extension cord. They also warned that outdoor lights should be weatherproof, and that lights designed for indoor use should never be used outdoors.

Christmas Tree Safety Tips Buy it fresh: Keep it moist by watering it daily. Watch the heat: Place trees away from fireplaces or any heat source. Do not put a spotlight near a tree. Fasten a large tree: Use thin guide wires to connect to walls or ceiling. Safe lighting: Use only Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approved lights. Discard broken or frayed light strands. Use no more than three sets of lights per extension cord. Make sure outdoor lights are waterproof. Discard tree promptly: Never burn the tree after Christmas. Discard it. Source: Orange County Fire Department

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