Friday, December 16, 2011

Don’t let your holiday celebrations turn to disaster: Preventing fires

For most people, the holidays are a time of family, celebrations and fun. But nothing puts an end to holiday merriment quicker than a house fire.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, almost 129,000 fires occur in December that require the fire department to come, with 72 percent of structure fires occurring in residential buildings. Oftentimes, holiday decorations play a role, as does home heating and cooking fires from holiday meals. And because some seasonal observances, like the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah or Kwanzaa kinara, involve candles, open flames add to risks.

Surprisingly, cooking fires top the list for holiday-related fires, causing 41 percent of them, says the U.S. Fire Administration. Cooking fires increase around Thanksgiving and peak in December. On any day in December, the percent of cooking fires is at about 3 percent. But such fires increase to 4.7 percent on Christmas Eve and 5.3 percent on Christmas Day.

New Year’s Eve and Day are also a risky time for fires. About 6,400 fires occur on an average New Year’s holiday, with 28 percent caused by fireworks. Cooking, heating and open flames are other common causes — and not a great way to start the new year.

Another holiday fire risk is a common decoration: The Christmas tree. As the saying goes, “A wet tree is a safe tree.” It may not be the most festive of holiday clichés, but it’s an important one.

A dry Christmas tree will fully ignite in a matter of seconds, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology,  and within 40 seconds, “flashover” will occur. Flashover is when an entire room becomes covered in flames, depleting oxygen and engulfing a room in deadly, toxic smoke.

Here are some quick tips for preventing holiday fires:

• When cooking, never leave food or equipment unattended. Keep combustible items like cookbooks, oven mitts or wooden spoons away from heat sources.

• Keep children away from holiday candles, fires and fireworks. The proportion of deaths caused by children playing with fire jumps to 26 percent in December.

• Never use candles to decorate a Christmas tree. Keep candles inside a one-foot circle away from anything combustible.

• Keep your live tree watered. Don’t place it close to a fireplace or lamps. Make sure your wiring is safe, and turn off tree decorations at night or when you’re not home.

• Keep space heaters and electrical wires away from combustible items.

• Double-check that all of your fire alarms are working and have batteries, and keep a fire extinguisher at home.

For more holiday fire safety tips, visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

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