Fire Safety Demo Illustrates Hazards of Holiday Season

Young Soo Yang | December 15, 2011 | Law & Public Safety
The Department of Community Affairs held a fire safety event to remind residents to exercise caution when decorating their homes with ornaments, lights and Christmas trees.
William Kramer, State Fire Marshall and Acting Director, DCA Division of Fire Safety. Photo Courtesy of Department of Community Affairs.

The joy of the holiday season can quickly turn tragic due to the hidden dangers of holiday decorations. The NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) held a fire safety event on Wednesday to remind residents to exercise caution when decorating their homes with ornaments, lights and Christmas trees.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), trees used indoors during the holiday season account for approximately 400 house fires each year. The consequences of these fires include 10 deaths, 80 injuries and more than $15 million in property damage.

“A significant hazard is created,” says Division of Fire Safety Acting Director William Kramer, “when a Christmas tree begins to dry out. While a fresh tree is not likely to burn well, a dry tree can burn with incredible speed and terrible consequences.”

At the Dempster Fire Training Center in Lawrenceville, a live Christmas tree was ignited to show how quickly a dry Christmas tree and decorations can burn.


Representatives of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Fire Safety visited Lawrence Township on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, and simulated a live Christmas tree catching fire to remind residents of hidden holiday dangers. Video produced by Ashley Peskoe for EastWindsorPatch.

But it’s not just trees that have the potential for calamity. “The holiday season for many families includes the festive lights and colorful decorations draped throughout homes and public places, and these naturally inspire people,” said DCA Commissioner Lori Grifa. “Unfortunately, hasty decorating, cooking mishaps, and childhood curiosity — combined with common holiday traditions — can be a recipe for disaster. We ask that people take a few minutes to review holiday fire prevention tips and apply them to their households so their festivities are also fire safe.”

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and United States Fire Administration (USFA) statistics also estimate that 170 home fires per year are caused by faulty holiday lighting.

“Decorative lights and other electrical decorations are attractive and brighten up the season, but they can also increase the risks of fire and electrical injuries if not used safely,” said Kramer. “Christmas tree fires, in particular, are substantially more damaging than most other fires. These fires result in twice the injuries and five times the fatalities per fire as the average winter holiday home fire.”

The DCA offers a list of precautions in a Holiday Safety Tips Fact Sheet posted on their website at


Live Evergreen Christmas Trees

• If possible, use a “live cut” tree from a tree farm.

• When purchasing a pre-cut tree, make sure the bark is sticky to the touch and look for lots of tree “sap” a gooey, sticky substance, which is evidence the tree is fresh.

• Bend those branches! A branch that snaps off when you bend it is indicative of a very dry tree and a potentially serious hazard.

• Do the “lift and drop” test. Lift the tree and let it fall to the ground. If the ground becomes littered with needles from the tree you are holding, return it to the rack and suggest it be recycled immediately.

• Once you have the tree inside your home, fill the tree stand with water and keep it filled. Some tree experts advise putting some refined sugar into the water also to keep the tree fresh.

• Place the tree far from heating vents or baseboards. Heating a tree dries it out prematurely.

• Do not put your tree up too early and do not leave it up too late. Both will contribute to it drying out and creating a hazard.

• Never dispose of your tree in any other way than placing it on the curb for pickup or taking it to the municipal recycling center or a non-profit environmental organization for re-purposing. Never cut it up and attempt to burn portions of it in a fireplace.

Decorative Holiday Lighting

• Always inspect each strand of lights each year for any frayed, exposed sections or gaps in the insulated covering. Check each socket to make sure it has retained its insulating integrity. Only use lighting that has been safety tested.

• Do not overload the outlet that powers the strand. More than three strands in any one string of lights are unsafe, unless the manufacturer says otherwise. Lights should not be extremely warm to the touch.

• Never leave lights unattended.

Holiday Decorations

• Use only nonflammable decorations. They should be labeled “flame retardant” and not left near any heat source.

• Manufactured Christmas trees are always a better choice than “live” trees, if they are labeled “flame retardant.”

• Remember to recycle wrapping paper and not dispose of it in any other way, such as in a fireplace. Because of its material, wrapping paper can ignite a chimney fire, which is a common holiday cause of fire.

• Never block exits with lights or decorations.

• Read manufacturer’s instructions and warning labels for any decoration that will be used around young children – such as electric trains or animatronic dolls. Note if it is appropriate for their age group and determine whether adult supervision is required; plan accordingly.

Holiday Candle Safety

• Wax candles look and smell nice, but battery-operated candles are the safest.

• If wax candles are used, make sure they are on a stable surface, as well as a fire-resistant base such as in a glass, metal, or ceramic holder with a reservoir to collect heated wax.

• Keep candles away from curtains or anything that may burn.

• Avoid using them in groups or as a tabletop centerpiece in evergreens.

• Never leave a room or the home with any candle burning.

• Trim the candlewick. Trimming wicks means longer lasting candles, less smoke and less risk of fire hazard.

• Children and pets should be kept away from burning candles.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight