Picture Fire Before the Tree Goes up

Despite my vow not to write about Christmas before Dec. 1, I've got to rush this Christmas tree safety column onto the November side of the ledger: Folks are out there buying them already.

Most of us think of natural Christmas trees as safe. At least the California Christmas Tree Assn. says so. Its members are the people who grow and sell them.

Christmas tree disasters are so rare, the association insists, that out of 33 million holiday trees sold annually, only 0.001% cause a residential fire. That's one one-thousandth of a percent.

That might be a comforting margin for the Christmas tree people. I say that figure could use a few more zeros.

I'm much more concerned by the reaction of Maria Sabol, safety education expert for the Orange County Fire Authority, who said: "Every year, we get called out because somebody's Christmas tree has caught fire."

Here's something I didn't know: A wood tree fire causes such an instant heat rise, room temperatures go up to 2,000 degrees. Two thousand.

"What people don't understand is, curtains across the room, well away from the tree, ignite just from the intensity of the heat," Sabol said.

About half of these fires, according to the National Fire Protection Assn., come from lamps and other electrical sources. A quarter of them are caused by open-flame sparks and embers (too close to the fireplace). Cigarettes and gas-fueled equipment cause most of the rest.

Here is how officials say you can best ensure Christmas tree safety:

* No frayed wires on your string of Christmas bulbs. (Sabol adds: no more than three strands of bulbs together, to prevent overload.)

* This may seem just common sense, but: Keep the darned tree away from the darned fireplace if the fireplace is in use.

* Also, place the tree well away from heat registers and space heaters.

* When you go to bed, unplug the lights. Don't keep them blinking all night just because you think it would be neat for the neighbors to see.

Here's one Sabol adds: Don't cut up your tree and burn it in your fireplace after Christmas. Most fireplaces are not built to handle such heat.

Now here's the most important one:

You know how delighted you are when the nice person at the retail tree outlet hammers on a cross-wood stand for you? That saves you trying to balance your tree in one of those little metal bowls, the kind where you have to turn four screws into the wood to hold it up.

No cross-wood stands, the Christmas tree people say. And here is why:

"A Christmas tree is a living plant, just like any other plant you would put in your house," said Mike Wade of the tree association. "Always keep your Christmas tree in water so it won't dry out."

The dried-out trees are the ones most likely to catch fire. And they drop lots of needles.

Also, Wade said, be sure to make a cut on your tree at the base, to expose fresh wood to the water. When the tree is cut by the grower, fresh wood is exposed then, of course. But by the time it is sold, the tree's natural preservation process has created a protective layer. So you need to make a new cut.

Also, don't let the water in your tree stand dry up. A tree without water stays fresh only seven days.

The rules are simple. But tragically, between now and Christmas Day, someone here in Orange County probably will ignore them. And on another page in this newspaper, you will read about a tragic fire caused by a Christmas tree.

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