Clarification: An earlier version of this article was misleading in terms of the comments of Jim Milke, chairman of the Department of Fire Proection Engineering at the University of Maryland. It incorrectly suggested that artificial trees were not safer than natural trees, when in fact they are. Milke’s point was that artificial trees can also burn, but they burn at a slower rate. The story has been updated.


Flames engulfed a Christmas tree at last year’s fire safety demonstration at the University of Maryland. (Faye Levine/University of Maryland)

Every year, Lloyd and Susan Creger put an artificial Christmas tree in front of the window of their New Carrollton home and a live Fraser fir in the family room, where most people gather. It’s their yuletide tradition.

The Cregers, like many area families, enjoy Christmas trees because they are a cultural tradition and connect people to the past. The family will convene in the family room Dec. 25 and open gifts and toys next to the fir, which is adorned with ornaments and lights.

“The artificial tree used to be my mother-in-law’s,” Lloyd Creger said. “When she moved in, we put up her tree, and in the family room is the real tree. We have decorations for both. We have a Fraser fir because they smell good.”

Many families share the Cregers’ sentiments, but engineers at the University of Maryland College Park want people to take more precautions with their Christmas trees, saying both natural and artificial trees can be a deadly fire hazard.

“Artificial trees are safer than natural trees, but the surprising aspect of artificial trees is that they still burn, though more slowly than natural trees,” said Jim Milke, chairman of the Department of Fire Protection Engineering at U-Md.

Professors and students at Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering will host the second annual Christmas tree fire safety demonstration Thursday, in which natural and artificial greenery will be ignited to show how easy it is for the holiday to turn tragic.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments across the United States respond to an average of 230 home fires sparked by Christmas trees each year. The association says that these fires, on average, result in six deaths, 22 injuries and $18.3 million in property damage annually.

In January, a Christmas tree fire in Annapolis destroyed a home and claimed the lives of Don and Sandra Pyle and four of their grandchildren. Fire investigators found that an electrical failure sparked the blaze, which ignited a 15-foot Christmas tree in the home.

“The fire in Annapolis was caused by a Christmas tree that had been up for about two months,” Milke said. “If branches are not watered, they can become quite combustible.”

Milke said the demonstration will be conducted by a group of high school students. It is part of an effort to recruit teens to go into a field that involves testing everything from airplane materials to lithium batteries to determine their combustibility.

The University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering was established in 1956 as part of the School of Engineering. More than 1,100 graduates from the department are employed in the industry, working for entities such as insurance companies; federal, state and local governments; the military; and fire services.

Susan Creger, a retired National Park Service ranger, said she waters her natural tree every day and takes special care of the artificial tree because it connects her with the past.

“Some of the ornaments on that tree were my grandmother’s,” Creger said as she looked at the artificial tree. “These are ornaments I grew up with.”