The fresh, cut Christmas tree stands as a fragrant and comforting symbol of the season, but at the risk of injecting some gloom into the holiday, it’s worth pointing out that an ill-kept tree can kill you.
Tree fires are relatively rare, but when they occur, the blaze is so rapid and intense that it can soon turn deadly.
Between 2010 and 2012, 10 people died in 200 Christmas tree fires. By contrast, 80 people were killed in a total of 6,500 fires started by candles in the same period, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
A recent demonstration by the commission, conducted at its lab in Rockville, drives home the point. The video shows the ignition of a dried-out tree: In less than 30 seconds, the tree morphs into a floor-to-ceiling Roman candle that consumes its staged room.
Another tragic reminder is the fire at the Annapolis mansion of Donald and Sandra Pyle, whose 15-foot Fraser fir was determined to have been the source of an inferno Jan. 19 in which the Pyles and their four grandchildren died. Investigators concluded that the tree probably had been watered only once a week, was dry and dropping needles. The fire probably started from an electrical outlet on the floor beneath the tree, according to a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. The tree had as many as 15 strands of lights, which had been left on day and night for six weeks.
Here are some answers to basic questions about caring for your tree, and yourself.
What sort of stand should I use?
Find a stand that anchors the tree securely and, for a standard cut tree, holds at least a gallon of water. Do not whittle away or shave the base of the tree to make it fit: This will compromise its ability to take up water. A clean, square cut is what you need, and if the trunk is too fat for the stand, get another stand.
When you buy the tree, the bottom inch or so of trunk should be cut afresh. Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk is a waste of time; the sapwood is toward the outside of the trunk.
If you can’t install and decorate a tree right away, you should store it in a cool, sheltered area in a bucket of water.
How safe are the electric lights on a tree?
You should use strands that are designed for indoor use and bear the label of a testing laboratory. Follow the manufacturer’s limits on the number of strands that can be strung together or plugged into one outlet. Before stringing them, check your old lights carefully for frayed or broken wires or loose bulb holders, all of which can cause fires. Damaged strands should be thrown out.
How do trees catch fire?
They can be ignited from several sources, including open flames such as a candle, from sparks from a nearby fireplace or wood stove, or an electrical short. In the Annapolis fire, investigators think an electrical floor outlet probably overheated and ignited the tree skirt. Dry trees are much more hazardous than hydrated ones.
Where should I place my tree?
The better question might be, “Where should I not place it?” Apart from keeping it away from obvious sources of flames, the tree should be located away from heat sources that will dry it out. These include fireplaces, heat registers, radiators, baseboard heaters or direct sunlight. Lowering the room temperature also will help.
How often should I water?
Every day. When a cut tree is first placed indoors, the ambient temperature will cause rapid uptake of water. The tree should be checked twice a day for the first few days. After its initial hydration, my seven-foot Fraser fir drinks a quart of water a day.
Do I need to use additives such as aspirin, soft drinks or floral preservatives?
No. Plain, cold tap water is all you need. Additives may impede transpiration.
Do I need to spray the foliage with waxy anti-desiccants or other products?
No. Just keep the tree watered.
My tree ran dry. What should I do?
If it was only for a few hours, it should be okay once it is watered again. Check it often for drying.
How can I tell if my tree is getting dry?
Needle drop is a good indication. Also the branches should remain pliable and the needles intact when you run your hand along the branch. If you detect excessive needle loss, fading of color and brittle branches, the tree should be removed pronto.
How long can I keep the tree?
The Epiphany (Jan. 6) traditionally marks the end of Christmastide, but New Year’s Day seems the optimal moment. Even trees that receive diligent care eventually will stop taking water and dry out.
In an attempt to study the flammability of a 15-foot Fraser fir such as the Pyles’, investigators obtained three similarly sized Fraser firs and subjected them to the same environmental conditions: They stored them for 23 days after cutting and then placed them in display stands for 42 days. Two were watered weekly and the third daily. Before a controlled burning, the water content in the first tree was measured at 32 percent. In the second, it was just 15 percent. The third tree had 73 percent moisture content — nine weeks after cutting.
Exposed to a small flame, the driest tree took five seconds to catch fire and reached peak burn in 35 seconds. The tree watered daily took seven minutes to ignite, released far less heat and parts of it remained unburned.
I have a tabletop tree and am leaving to see relatives right after Christmas. Will the tree be all right for a few days unwatered?
Tabletop trees require less water but the same principles of care apply. They should be checked and watered daily. If the tree stand is likely to run dry before you return, you should take it down and dispose of it properly.
How should I dispose of my tree?
Most local jurisdictions provide curbside pickup. Don’t leave the old tree in or near your home or in outbuildings. “That’s a lot of fuel,” said Lorraine Carli of the National Fire Protection Association.
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