Q & A: Fire Prevention Before, During and After the Holidays


Feet of family in woolen socks warming near burning fireplace at living room on Christmas

In the middle of the coldest, darkest time of the year, most of us enjoy the cheer of the bright lights and warmth of the holidays. But did you know the risk of home fires is highest during this festive season? And the U.S. Department of Commerce says that although only 13 percent of our population is older than 65, more than 32 percent of people who die in home fires are seniors.

So when it comes to fire safety, it’s time to make a list and check it twice. Here are some questions to ask:

Before the holidays

Are my holiday lights safe? The U.S. Fire Administration warns that each year, faulty or improperly used lights lead to house fires. Whether your house features a lavish outdoor display, or you just hang a few strands of lights above the mantel, read the instructions that come with lights. Are they for indoor or outdoor use? What is the maximum number of strands you can safely connect? Are they approved by a recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL)? Inspect strings of lights for frayed wires and other damage. Use clips rather than nails to hang them. And don’t overload extension cords.

Are the Christmas tree and other holiday greenery fresh? Artificial trees, wreaths and swags are the safest, but many of us prefer a natural tree, evergreen boughs and holly. If so, be sure greenery is fresh. If needles and leaves are falling off, it’s not. As soon as you bring a Christmas tree home, cut off the bottom of the trunk at an angle and place it in water. Don’t place the tree near heat sources or candles.

Are my smoke alarms working? With all the extra family in the house and the increased risk of fire, it’s smart to inspect smoke alarms ahead of time to be sure they’re in good working order. While you’re at it, inspect your home fire extinguishers and learn how to properly use them.

During the holidays

Am I using candles safely? From the Hanukkah menorah to the Kwanzaa kinara, the candle crown of Santa Lucia Day, Christmas candles and the candlelit luminaria of Los Posadas, many of our beloved winter holidays are celebrated with candles instead. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) encourages the use of battery-powered candles, but if you’re using the real thing, take precautions. Keep candles at least a foot away from greenery, gift wrap, and anything else that is flammable. Never leave children, pets or people with dementia alone in a room with candles. If your faith tradition calls for letting candles burn down rather than blowing them out, make sure someone is there.

Is my fireplace safe? A Yule log burning in the fireplace is a holiday tradition, but safety precautions are in order. Have the chimney inspected before starting the first fire of the season. Don’t decorate the mantle with flammable greenery, and mind the “Night Before Christmas” admonition to hang stockings with care. Never burn wrapping paper or greenery in the fireplace. Don’t leave loved ones with dementia or children alone in the room, and make sure the fire is out before you turn in for the night or head out caroling.

And what about the Christmas tree? Time for another reminder! When it’s piled high with presents, we might forget to water it. But most trees need about a gallon a day of fresh water. If it’s hard to reach the tree stand, equip the tree with a tall watering funnel. Don’t leave Christmas tree lights on overnight or when you’re not home.

Is my kitchen safe? The NFPA reports that the winter holidays are the peak days for cooking fires. Most of these fires happen when a pan of cooking food is left unattended on the stove. It’s easy to understand why that happens! We’re socializing with our guests in the other room, maybe we’ve had a little too much “holiday cheer” to drink, it’s time to open the presents, or relatives call to wish us happy holidays … and we forget about the simmering gravy or a pot of potatoes. Invest in a kitchen timer that keeps beeping until you turn it off.

Will we have New Year’s Eve fireworks? Public safety agencies strongly suggest watching public fireworks rather than staging a do-it-yourself show in the backyard. In most communities, fireworks are illegal; add holiday toasts to the mix and you could end up with your house on fire. Turn on the TV instead and watch the big public displays as 2019 arrives around the world.

After the holidays

When should I take down the Christmas tree? Sure, it can be sad to send the tree to the curb and un-deck the halls, but dried leaves and needles are a major fire hazard. The longer they’re in the house, the more flammable they become. The NFPA says that almost half of Christmas tree fires happen in January. Said the NFPA’s Lorraine Carli, “We hope that by educating people about extreme fire hazards, people will be prompted to take down their trees in a timely manner, giving their families the gift of fire safety as the season winds down.”

What’s the best way to store my holiday lights and other electrical decorations? You can do yourself a favor for the 2019 holidays by inspecting indoor and outdoor electric lights, and storing them correctly. Discard strands that have loose connections, cracked or bare wires or broken sockets. Store them wrapped around the original cardboard holders, or in individual plastic bags. If you’re one of those people who likes to leave their outdoor lights up until Easter, remember that you will have to inspect and replace them more often as they are exposed to the elements over time.

Taking the above precautions will help ensure that your holidays are merry and bright … and safe.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.