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Christmas tree fires at home: Holiday horror or exaggerated hazard?

Sadly, decking the halls ignites disaster for some American families.

Each year, an average of 240 home fires begin with Christmas trees, leading to $16.7 million in property damage, according to a National Fire Prevention Association analysis of U.S. fire data from 2005 through 2009. Those tree-related fires also cause an average of 13 deaths and 27 injuries a year, based on the 2005-09 figures.

Christmas tree fire hazard: Fact or fiction?

christmas tree fires Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers of natural trees, says these statistics show that Christmas trees "are not the fire hazard many media outlets like to make them seem and which many people unfortunately believe."

Dungey points out that a Christmas tree was the first item ignited in 190 home fires reported in 2009. About two-thirds, or 125, of those fires involved natural trees. The remaining fires (65) involved fake trees. That same year, Americans put up 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees and 11.7 million fake trees.

What do all of those numbers mean in terms of Christmas trees being a fire hazard? In 2009, only 0.0004 percent of real Christmas trees across the country and 0.00055 percent of fake Christmas trees were the first items ignited in home fires. Indeed, the number of home fires that begin with Christmas trees "is relatively small," the fire protection group acknowledges.

A serious concern

Nonetheless, the National Fire Protection Association notes, when Christmas tree fires do happen, they're likely to be serious. From 2005 through 2009, an average of one of every 18 Christmas tree fires at home resulted in a death, compared with an average of one death for every 141 overall home fires.

The association says one-third of Christmas tree fires were caused by some type of electrical failure or malfunction, and one-fifth were caused by some kind of heat source (such as a fireplace) being too close to the tree. Two of every five Christmas tree fires in homes started in the living room, family room or den.

On a positive note, the fire protection group says home fires involving Christmas trees "have declined fairly steadily over the past decades." The number of Christmas tree fires plummeted 78 percent from a high of 850 in 1980 to a low of 190 in 2009, the group says. During the same time, the number of home fires declined 51 percent.

Insurance covers Christmas tree fires

If your home is damaged or destroyed in a Christmas tree fire, a standard home insurance or renter's insurance policy will cover the loss, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

Typically, shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters or matches spark Christmas tree fires, Worters says. "Candles, lights and decorations are an essential part of the holiday season," she says. "Unfortunately, they also increase the risk of fire and injury."

Preventing Christmas tree fires

To reduce that risk, the Insurance Information Institute, National Fire Protection Association and National Christmas Tree Association offer these safety tips:

Natural trees

• Pick out a freshly cut Christmas tree; one that's too dry can easily catch fire. Check for fresh, green needles. Do not buy a tree that's dry or that's dropping needles.

• Trim about 2 inches from the bottom of the tree; this will increase the tree's ability to absorb water.

• Check the water level daily and replenish the water as needed to maintain the level so that it's above the bottom of the tree trunk.

• If the tree becomes dry or the needs start falling off in large quantities, remove it from your home immediately and dispose of it properly.

Artificial trees

• Make sure an artificial tree is made of fire-resistant material.

All trees

• Never place a Christmas tree near a heat source such as a fireplace or stove.

• Place the tree in a secure stand designed to hold the weight of the tree.

• Do not use candles to decorate a tree.

• Never go near a tree with an open flame such as a candle, lighter or match.

• Do not overload electrical sockets by plugging too many cords into a single outlet.

• Always unplug holiday lights when no one is home or when everyone goes to sleep for the evening.

• Use only those lights approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

• Inspect old light strands for any cracks, frayed edges or bare spots. Throw out any damaged strands.

• Children are fascinated by Christmas trees. Watch them closely when they're around a tree, and don't let them play with the wiring or lights.

This YouTube video demonstrates how flammable a dry Christmas tree (left) can be as opposed to a tree watered regularly (right). This test was conducted by the National Fire Protection Association and Underwriters Laboratories.

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