"IT'S SAD but the very things that make Christmas Christmas are the same things that are unsafe and can ruin the holiday," says Marion Cole, manager of public information for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
"We no longer keep statistics on holiday fires. It's only in the hundreds. Compared to the number of fires that occur each year in the millions that's not such a high number. But any fire around the holidays seems more horrible than usual. It can ruin the holiday for that family forever."
Heidi Bowers, spokesperson for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, shudders when she remembers her mother's stories of candle-lit Victorian trees. "Oh, I'm sure they were gorgeous and the most common way to light up a tree, in days when electricity was not standard. But it scares me to think of the fire hazards involved."
Although fire hazards are among the first things to consider when decorating your home for the holidays, other seasonal dangers include poisoning and broken glass. The Tree
"Choose a natural tree," advises Bowers. "The freshness of the tree is essential, particularly if you plan to keep it up for any length of time."
The National Christmas Tree Association says you can tell if a tree is fresh if the needles are resilient. "Take hold of a branch about six inches from the tip, between thumb and forefinger. Pull your hand toward you allowing the branch to slip through your fingers. Needles should adhere to the branch and not fall off in your hand," states a recent association newsletter.
Other ways to test for freshness adds the newsletter: "Bend a needle between your forefinger and thumb. The needle should form a 'U' without breaking . . . or lift the tree a couple inches off the ground, then bring it down abruptly on the stump end. Dry green needles should not fall off in substantial numbers . . . A fresh tree should have a fragrance and good green color."
NFPA's Marion Cole says you should saw one inch off the base of the tree. "Keep the stand filled with water, covering the base. Check each day to see if the stand is filled. During this time of year, homes are bone dry, especially with all the insulation we have nowadays."
Keep the tree away from heat sources, continues Cole, as well as from exits and stairways. "If a fire does occur, you don't want your paths of escape blocked."
The NFPA does not recommend spraying a flame retardant on your tree. "It does not make your tree fireproof, it only slows down the flames. It gives you a false sense of security.
"And take the tree down as soon as possible after Christmas," says Cole. "I know everyone likes to keep theirs up till the New Year, but it's not very safe." Lighting
"Never use lighted candles on a tree," says Heidi Bowers. "I didn't think this was necessary advice to give, but the other day I saw the clip-on candle holders being sold at a local store. They just invite trouble."
Always buy lights that have been properly inspected. They should bear the UL Underwriters Laboratory label.
"Old lights should be checked thoroughly before using each year," recommends Cole. "The insulation should not be worn, the light sockets should be tight, not cracked and the plugs firm. Use extension cords sparingly." To check, plug in each set before stringing.
Bowers advises that tree lights be clipped to the tree with the light facing away from the needles. The light shouldn't touch the needles.
Do not use lights on artificial metallic trees, warns Cole. They can cause a shock. Instead use flood lights around the tree.
If you do buy an artificial tree, suggests Bowers, make sure it's fire resistant.
Never leave the house or go to bed without turning the lights off.
Don't use indoor lights outside, says Cole. Wiring with heavier insulation is needed for outdoor lights. Decorations
"Of course it's hard to toss those handmade paper decorations the children made in school, but we urge homeowners to use mostly metal and glass, in other words, non-flammable ornaments," says Cole.
If you do have paper or cotton ornaments, keep smokers away.
All costumes, including Santa Claus outfits, should be flame proof.
"It's tempting to put cut greens around the fireplace and candles -- they look so pretty," says Bowers, "but you shouldn't since it's a fire hazard." Instead use the greens in the window or on a table -- away from heat sources.
Fragile glass ornaments should be hung on the upper portions of the tree, away from kids and pets, advises the CPSC.
Don't spray artificial snow on angel hair, says Bowers. "If ignited, the angel hair will burn rapidly. It also gives off a toxic smoke."
Mistletoe and holly berries should be kept away from children and pets. They are poisonous if eaten. It doesn't hurt to have the Poison Control number on hand, says Bowers. Emil Corwin, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration's toxicology department, adds that poinsettia plants are also poisonous, so small children and pets should not be allowed to munch on them.
Poison Control Center numbers are: in the District, 625-3333; in suburban Maryland, 800-492-2414; in Alexandria, 379-3070; in Arlington, 558-6161; and in Fairfax, 698-3600. The Fireplace
"A fireplace should not be used as an incinerator for gift wrapping," warns Bowers. "It's very combustible," adds Cole. "It burns fast, causing flames to shoot out of the fireplace onto the carpet."
It's also not a good idea to burn dried out tree branches in the fireplace -- they too will send out sparks.
Not only at Christmas but every time you use your fireplace, use a screen advises the NFPA. "A mesh screen that closes with a draw string is best," says Cole. "With free standing screens you must be careful that flames don't shoot out in the space between the mantel and the screen." Other Advice
Electric toys should have a UL label. Although most American-made toys do, the foreign imports sometimes do not.
Smoke detectors are highly recommended, again not only at this time of year, but all the time.
Heidi Bowers says she moves the kitchen fire extinguisher into the living room area for easy access around the holidays. Cole says this is fine, but warns that if a large fire does occur, you're better off getting out and letting the fire department put out the blaze.