Put Safety First This Season

That Christmas tree? Those candles? The holiday feast? All are potential fire hazards.

December 14, 2012

It’s December, so it’s time to set up your Christmas tree, fry some latkes and light Kwanzaa candles.

But it’s also a time to be careful:

“Now throughout the winter season — the heating season — is when we see more fires,” says D.C.’s Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Bruce Faust (Fems.dc.gov,@FM1DC). “Around the Christmas holiday, people are using candles, people are cooking.”

A few simple steps can make sure you stay safe while decorating or cooking for the holidays. After all, if you’re trying to bring some holiday cheer to your apartment, the last thing you want to do is set your Christmas tree on fire.

O Tannenbaum

Christmas trees are a staple of the season. But live trees can be a fire hazard, so some apartment communities forbid having them in units. Check with your landlord or management company before you chop anything down.

If your landlord won’t allow a live tree, you can always go faux — most fake trees are fire retardant, Faust says.

If you do get a live tree, keep it well-watered. “Dry trees ignite more quickly,” Faust says. “If needles are falling off the tree, or if you can break a needle with your fingers, it’s too dry.”

To prevent your tannenbaum from becoming a firebomb, place it at least 3 feet away from electrical sockets and heating vents. And don’t put it in front of any exits.

Light the Lights

Speaking of not setting your tree on fire, make sure your Christmas-tree lights don’t have frayed wires or broken bulbs that could cause a spark. “My rule of thumb is that after three years, you really should get new lights,” says Nancy Harvey Steorts, the former chairwoman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (Nationalsafetyexpert.com).

If you use an extension cord with your lights, make sure it’s not frayed or worn. Don’t run an extension cord anywhere where there is foot traffic, including under a rug. Not only could people trip on it, but it makes the cord fray more quickly.

Be sure the lights you buy have been certified by a third-party inspection company such as UL (UL.com) or MET Laboratories (Metlabs.com). You’ll see their initials stamped on the packages of approved products.

“There are a lot of lights that come from around the world and aren’t up to code,” Steorts says.

No matter how high-end your lights, don’t plug more than three strands of lights into one another. That’s all most Christmas-tree lights can handle, and creating superlong strings of them increases the chances that you’ll blow a fuse or start a fire.

Just as you shouldn’t overload your lights, don’t overload your sockets when you plug lights in.  If the only socket available already has half of Apple’s product line plugged into it, it might be a good time to invest in a high-quality power strip.

Up to Snuff

Candles are a joyful reminder of the holiday spirit — and a fire hazard.

“We see lots of people who use candles and then leave the room, forget about them,” says Fire Marshal Faust. A three-alarm fire in a Logan Circle apartment building started that way in 2010, displacing 21 people. “A person left an unattended candle, and it completely burned out their entire apartment, and extended out to the apartment down the hall,” Faust says.

Here’s an easy rule of thumb to avoid making your neighbors homeless:

“If you leave the room, the candles should be extinguished,” Steorts says. “I have seen too many cases where people have left the living room and gone to the dining room for dinner, and lights have fallen over.”

With that in mind, we’d like to propose a new holiday tradition: testing your smoke alarms or smoke detectors. Every apartment is required by law to have at least one smoke alarm or detector. But while houses in the District are required to have a smoke alarm in every sleeping area, there are no similar laws governing apartments.

“This is a policy decision,” Faust says. “I think it should be one alarm in every sleeping area, but it’s up to the building manager.”

If you want to bug your landlord to install extra smoke alarms, the D.C. Fire Department recommends the kind with a 10-year lithium battery sealed inside. “You can’t pull the battery out,” Faust says. “So you can’t use it in a remote control.”

Now Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding

Whether you’re making menorah-shaped cookies or an entire Christmas dinner, cooking in an apartment-size kitchen comes with safety challenges.

If your kitchen is tiny, you may be tempted to store your cereal in that convenient nook above your stovetop. Don’t do it. Keep combustibles — food or otherwise — at least 3 feet away from anything that gets hot.

Even if your stove area is clear, never leave the room while things are cooking. “Unattended cooking is one of our biggest [causes of fire] all year, not just the holiday season,” Faust says.

If you plan to do a lot of holiday cooking, invest in a fire extinguisher and learn how to use it. It could make the difference between a few panicky moments and a huge, costly fire.

“We used to tell people not to worry about putting the fire out, just make sure you get out and are safe,” Faust says. “We now see that 30 percent of incipient fires are actually put out by fire extinguishers.”

With a little thought and preparation, you can ensure that your holiday celebration will go down in a blaze of glory, not an actual blaze.

Beth Marlowe is a senior editor at Washington Post Express. She has written for The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Bloomberg Television and other publications.
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