Watch out for holiday hazards! Stay safe with tips from Orange County firefighters

A Christmas tree is engulfed in flames during a fire safety demonstration.
A decorated Christmas tree is engulfed in flames during a fire safety demonstration at the Orange County Fire Authority training facility in Irvine in December 2015. It was part of a campaign intended to alert the public to how easily and quickly a tree can ignite and spread fire in a home.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

Lights adorn practically every branch of the Christmas trees that tower over the entrance of the Westin South Coast Plaza each year. But one 96-foot white fir that had been decked out in front of the hotel wound up glowing for a less festive reason when it caught fire at about 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2015, after it had rained the night before.

On average, Christmas trees are linked to the cause of about 160 residential fires each year, according to the National Fire Protection Assn. And an additional 790 are traced back to candles, lights or other types of decorations.

A  crew cleans the area around a tree that was destroyed in a fire in front of the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel.
A maintenance crew cleans the area around the giant South Coast Plaza Christmas tree which was destroyed in an early morning fire in front of the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa in December 2015.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Christmas trees are related to the cause of only a tiny portion of the home fires that happen in the U.S. each year, less than .1%, according to the NFPA. They are rare, and also largely avoidable, Costa Mesa Fire Battalion Chief Chris Coates said.

“They don’t happen that often, but they’re often tragic,” he said.

A Newport Beach husband and wife had been exchanging gifts when they saw their tree catch fire and called Metro Fire Net Communications at 12:09 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2006. Smoke and flames filled their home as the man rushed upstairs to wake their two sons. They managed to escape, but the blaze gutted their 3,600 square-foot residence on Port Durness Place, causing about $500,000 in damage.

A 4-year-old, 8-year-old and 12-year-old died after their family’s Christmas tree ignited in their apartment in Hemet three years ago. Their father, then 41-year-old Juan Moreno, tried to save them but was also killed in the blaze.

Planning and precaution can help prevent the unimaginable from happening over the holidays.

Coates advises residents to make sure their trees are well-watered and kept away from sources of heat like heaters, HVAC vents and especially candles. Lights should be checked for loose bulbs or any sort of fraying.

Electrical decorations hung outside of the house should be rated by Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) for outdoor use, Coates and Huntington Beach Fire Prevention Inspector Noah Fisher said. And people installing them should avoid overextending themselves while standing on ladders.

“We’ll start to get a lot of calls about falls around this time of year,” Fisher said. “You don’t need to be that high to get hurt.”

Those who plan on hosting gatherings during the holidays should consider having an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency and ought to be mindful of hazards, especially in high-traffic areas like kitchens, Fisher said. Half of all home fires begin in kitchens, and kitchen fires happen three to four times more often than normal on Thanksgiving, according to the NFPA.

Fisher advises people who plan on cooking holiday season meals to keep lids for their pots and pans nearby. Those can be used to smother any overzealously tossed dishes that happen to catch fire. If flames do break out over the stove, people should not try to put them out with water.

“That can result in explosive fire and splatter grease everywhere,” Fisher said.

If a fire happens in an oven, it should be turned off immediately and left closed, Fisher said. It should extinguish itself so long as it’s cut off from fresh air.

“You’ll probably have to wave out a bunch of smoke before heading to Denny’s, though,” Fisher said.

He and Coates advise hosts to keep children and pets away from cooking areas. And, with many planning to either have company over or leave homes unattended as they go out and visit loved ones, the holidays may be a good time to check on the condition of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.

Firefighters fry a turkey in a pot filled with hot cooking oil during a fire safety demonstration.
Fire Capt. Jason Williams, left, and firefighter paramedic Jacquie Johnson fry a turkey in a pot filled with hot cooking oil during a fire safety demonstration at the Orange County Fire Authority training facility in Irvine.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

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