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Beth Bales: Be Alert, Geneva, and Keep the Wreath Red

Holiday decorations can cause fires; the 'wreath' campaign reminds everyone to use care, when decking the halls for the holidays.

Maybe it’s an electrical short in a cord powering Christmas decorations. Maybe it’s a too-dry tree. Maybe it’s a festive candle that burns just a little too brightly.

Whatever the cause, Christmas and holiday decorations can and do cause fires. 

And it’s that reality that fuels the annual “Keep the Wreath Red” campaign at many fire departments across the country, including our own (Disclosure: Fire Chief Steve Olson is my husband.)

People traveling on East Side Drive past the headquarters fire station have probably noticed the big snowman, exhorting passersby to “Keep the Wreath Red.” The department long has participated in the public awareness campaign, now more than 30 years old, that’s meant to draw attention to the dangers posed by holiday decorations, and to remind people to be careful of them. The wreath’s bulbs will remain red; should there be a fire in Geneva caused by holiday decorations, a white bulb will replace one of the festive-red ones.  

Has there ever been a fire in Geneva caused by holiday decorations? Yes, said Olson. Some years ago, a candle on the fireplace mantel set fire to the roping decorating on the mantel and to the wreath above it. 

In fact, the National Fire Protection Association said last year that December is the peak month for home candle fires, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day two of the top five days for candle-associated fires. 

The U.S. Fire Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency said that in December, 13 percent of home candle fires begin with decorations, compared to 4 percent the rest of the year.

Between 2005 and 2009, fire departments across the United States responded to an estimated 240 home structure fires that were started by Christmas trees, causing an average of 13 civilian deaths, 27 civilian injuries and $16.7 million in property damage, the association said. On average, there were deaths associated with one of every 19 tree-related fires, compared to an average of one death per 141 total home fires.  

Of these Christmas tree structure fires, one-third involved electrical failure or malfunction, 20 percent involved a heat source too close to the tree, 13 percent involved decorative lights and line voltage and 11 percent began with candles. (And 18 percent were intentionally set, according to the association.) 

The NFPA says one-quarter of home decoration fires occur in December, that more than half such fires are started by candles and that half of holiday decoration fires occur because decorations are too close to a heat source. And U.S. Fire departments respond to approximately 260 home structure fires each year that begin with the Christmas tree—one-third of those are caused by electrical problems and one-fifth are caused by a too-close heat source.

Don’t be singing the blues: Keep the wreath red. Remember, as the Fire Department says, “Fires don’t take a holiday.”

The department’s holiday decorating tips include: 

  • Use only nonflammable decorations, or flame-retardant ones, and place them away from heat vents
  • Don’t put wrapping paper in the fireplace because the paper can throw off dangerous sparks and produce a chemical buildup that could cause an explosion.
  • Don’t block the home’s address with external decorations.
  • Never use indoor lights outside; make sure exterior lights are designed for outdoor use.
  • To keep a Christmas tree fresh, cut off about 2 inches of the trunk to expose fresh wood for better water absorption.
  • Place the Christmas tree away from sources of heat.
  • Don’t overload extension cords and outlets.
  • Check light strings for worn or frayed wires, bare spots, gaps in insulation or broken or cracked sockets; use only approved lighting. 
  • Use caution with candles! Don’t leave a lit candle in an inattended room, keep them away from decorations and don’t go near a tree with a candle or other open flame such as a lighter or matches.

The US Fire Administration and FEMA also offer information on candle fire safety and holiday fire safety.

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