Fire marshal's tips to avoid holiday going up in flames

’Tis the season for holiday lights, Christmas trees, fireplaces and woodstoves, but before getting too cozy by the fire, Peter Bernstein, Georgetown’s deputy fire marshal, wants to remind everyone to take precautions when warming up the house and decorating for the holiday season.


If you have a Christmas tree, whether it was cut down at a farm or picked out at Ambler Farm or Stew Leonard’s, the key to keeping a tree healthy is keeping it watered daily, said Mr. Bernstein.

The tree should be kept at least three feet away from any heat source — fireplace, woodstove, space heater, etc. — so it doesn’t dry out, he said. Also, people should make sure the tree isn’t blocking any exit doors out of the home.

After Christmas is over, “we recommend not to keep your tree inside for a length of time, they’ll just drop needles. The drier they get the larger the chance grows that something can ignite it,” he said.

Mr. Bernstein also said live trees are not allowed in commercial buildings unless there is an automatic sprinkler system.

Holiday lights should be listed or labeled for indoor or outdoor use, he said.

“Check lights yearly, especially outdoor lights, because the wires tend to degrade. If there are worn cords or broken cords or loose bulbs or broken bulbs — replace them,” said Mr. Bernstein.

If someone is using a smaller string of lights, Mr. Bernstein said, no more than three should be plugged together. After three sets of lights are connected together, go back to the outlet and plug in more if needed, he said.

“Don’t plug four, five, six, or more together. Also, if the lights have screw-in bulbs, they should have no more than 50 bulbs to a string,” he said.

Indoor lights should be turned off each night, said Mr. Bernstein.

“All lights produce heat, and when the lights are on, you’ll tend to find the tree will drink more water because of the heat, so check the water daily,” he said.

LED (light-emitting diode) lights tend to be cooler because they don’t produce any heat, so they are not as much of an issue, said Mr. Bernstein.

“But still make sure the cords are good,” he said.

With artificial trees, Mr. Bernstein said, the box should be labeled by a listing agency like UL or FM, and the box or paperwork should say the tree is flame-retardant.

“Here’s a fact — nationwide, around 250 structural fires were caused by Christmas trees, and half of those were caused by electrical issues from wires and lights. One in four resulted from the tree being too close to a heat source,” said Mr. Bernstein. “People can always go to [National Fire Prevention Association]; it has all kinds of safety information for Christmas lights and trees.”


It has been very cold lately, and this has been causing people to turn up their heat, start the fireplace and put a log on the stove, but before that, residents should inspect and clean their heating source, said Mr. Bernstein.

“I recommend each year you have your fireplace inspected and cleaned,” he said.

If a fireplace doesn’t have any netting at the top of the chimney, Mr. Bernstein said, people should check to see if any animal nests have been formed that could block the damper. If the damper is blocked, smoke could come back down the chimney and fill the house.

“Once a year you should have it cleaned, especially if burning pine or unseasoned wood, which you shouldn’t burn anyway, but people do,” he said. “If you only light a couple fires a couple times a year, then I’d say do it every other year, it’s probably not too bad.”

Cleaning annually goes for woodstoves too, he said, which “even more frequently, need to be cleaned.”

“If you have small children, put a gate in front of it so if someone falls they won’t get burned. They [woodstoves] can get extremely hot,” he said.

Wood should also be stored at least three feet away from the woodstove in case embers or sparks fly out that could ignite the woodpile, said Mr. Bernstein.

“We’ve had a couple fires where people have wood stored in the house against the woodstove and the wood caught fire. The problem wasn’t the woodstove, it was the woodpile, and the house burned,” he said.

Ashes should be disposed of a metal bucket, he said.

“Always remember that ashes can be cold to touch but can still be hot underneath in the pile of ash, so ashes should always be put in a metal bucket and taken outside and either hosed down or put in area where it can’t start a fire,” said Mr. Bernstein. “Don’t leave your ash can or bucket on a deck outside the door. We’ve had a couple fires in Redding where people did that and thought ashes were cold but it burned a hole through the deck and the bucket fell right through the deck to the ground below.”

“Always assume ashes can still have hot embers,” he said. “Store them away from the house and dump where they won’t catch leaves or brush on fire. We’ve already had one of those this year.”

When using the fireplace, Mr. Bernstein said not to burn wrapping paper, garbage or cardboard — just firewood. And when it is time to put the fire out and go to bed, Mr. Bernstein said, keep the damper open.

“Even though there might not be smoke, carbon monoxide from the burning embers will be in the house,” he said. “Anything that burns puts off carbon monoxide, so if you use a fireplace or woodstove, have a carbon monoxide detector — a working carbon monoxide detector.”

Detectors should be on sleeping levels in a household; since carbon monoxide is lighter than air, he said, when it is mixed with a byproduct with combustion, it can go anywhere.

The thing to remember, he said, is that carbon monoxide detectors aren’t like smoke detectors. Carbon monoxide detectors go off when there is a buildup high enough to alert the detector, unlike smoke detectors, which go off with the smallest amount of smoke, he said.

“If the carbon monoxide detector is going off or you have symptoms of carbon monoxide, please keep the house closed,” he said. “If it goes off, call 911 and leave the house.”

By keeping windows and doors shut, the Fire Department can find where the carbon monoxide is coming from, he said.

Also, Mr. Bernstein said, people should never leave their car in the garage to heat up before driving.

“Turn on the car and pull it out of the garage,” he said.

Precaution should also be taken when using candles and space heaters, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of candle fires over the years. You can’t leave them unattended. Don’t let it burn in a room without someone being around it,” he said. “Never leave a child alone in a room with a burning candle.”

Space heaters are good for heating up a small area, but they should not be left in an empty room, he said.

“If you’re not in the room, don’t have it on,” he said. “It doesn’t take much for something to fall into it. A lot have anti-tip safety switches so if the heater falls over it should go off, but if something falls against the heater, it can ignite furniture, curtains, etc. You need to be careful.

“On behalf of all the fire departments, we want everyone to have a safe holiday season. We don’t want to see anyone this year,” said Mr. Bernstein.