Submitted by Past Chief Duane Fox, Jr.
While October was Fire Safety Month, inclusive of Fire Prevention Week, we are now approaching the holidays, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, with all of their special fire hazards. From fires sparked by holiday decorations to kitchen fires from an overloaded appliance, it’s the time of year for increased fire calls – and an increase in the number of fire deaths and injuries, and the heartbreak when they involve children.
As beautiful as they may be, the tradition of decorating homes during the holidays can be deadly if fire hazards are ignored. Celebrate the holidays however you wish but remember there are inherent hazards in placing a live (or artificial) tree inside the home during the holidays, when plenty of family and friends visit.
More than 33 million American homes decorate with a natural tree as part of the holiday decorations each year, and Christmas trees account for approximately 240 fires annually, resulting in 13 deaths and more than $16 million in property damage. Typically, shorts in electrical lights and open flames from candles, lighters or matches start tree fires. Well-watered trees are not usually a problem, but a dry and neglected one can be.
DRIED OUT Christmas Trees
Even live trees that have been well watered and cared for will eventually stop absorbing water and start to dry out. A good rule of thumb is to never keep a live Christmas tree for more than a month. When the needles start falling off in large numbers, it is a good sign that it is time to get it out of the house. Dry trees are a fire hazard and should not be left in the home, garage or placed outside against the home.
When a flame from a candle touches a dry tree, it doesn’t take long for a raging fire to ensue. Within three seconds of ignition, the dry tree is ablaze. At five seconds, the fire can extend up the tree and issue large quantities of thick black smoke and searing gases across the ceiling. Fresh air near the floor continues feeding the fire, and the heat layer high in the room begins to bank down, preheating other combustibles in the room. Within 40 seconds a flashover (where the entire room erupts into flames) can occur. The oxygen supply is diminishing, and thick, dense smoke engulfs the entire room. Below is a video produced by NIST showing a live Christmas tree fire. Be sure to watch both the dry and watered live tree burns. Notice the time clock is ticking and how fast the devastation occurs.
Artificial trees may not dry out, but keep in mind most are made from synthetic materials that can easily catch fire and burn almost as rapidly as a real tree. All trees, real or artificial, should be kept well away from direct heating sources such as fireplaces, wood stoves and space heaters.
PROPER TREE DISPOSAL
Do not dispose of Christmas trees by burning it in a fireplace or woodstove. The trees have a lot of sap, which can lead to explosive burning once heated. Pine needles also burn hot and fast, and flames can quickly flare out of control and send sparks flying across a room or ignite creosote deposits in the chimney and cause a chimney fire.
KITCHEN AND COOKING FIRES
Thanksgiving is upon us, which means turkey, stuffing and kitchen fires—a lot of kitchen fires. In fact, there are so many dinner disasters that Turkey Day is the peak day for home cooking blazes, according to the NFPA.
Just a little thought and action before you turn the heat on can prevent a stovetop disaster.
When you’re selecting the pot or pan you’ll be using to cook on your stovetop, also pull out the lid to the pot or pan, or a cookie sheet that is large enough to completely cover the pot or pan.
If a fire starts, grab the lid or cookie sheet that you have handy and cover up the flames until they smother out.
OIL OR GREASE FIRES
Residents often experience an “adrenaline dump” when a kitchen fire occurs, and an oil or grease fire mixed with that adrenaline can cause problems if you try and move your pan or pot to the sink or outside. Your best bet is to not even try it, and instead:
- Call 911first do not wait until the fire gets out of control.
- Cover the flames with a metal lid or cookie sheet. Leave the cover on until it has cooled or the fire department has arrived/
- Turn off the heat source.
- If it’s small and manageable, pour baking soda or salt on it to smother the flames.
- As a last resort, spray the fire with a Class B dry chemical fire extinguisher. Be sure to sweep the agent across the top of the pan. DO NOT expel the agent directly into the grease, as it will cause the grease to spatter and the fire to grow!
MICROWAVE AND OVEN FIRES
You can handle flames that erupt in your microwave or oven in three easy steps:
- Keep the door closed.
- Turn off the appliance (unplug it if you can).
- Let the fire burn out in the enclosed space.
Remember, no peeking!
The fire goes out because it eats up all the oxygen in the space, so don’t open the door and feed it any more oxygen.
Cleaning the OVEN
When cleaning the oven, first clean out as much of the drippings as possible, while the oven is cold. Once you turn the self-cleaning process on the oven is going to burn off whatever is left. It is not uncommon to see flames inside the oven. You cannot open the door (safety mechanism provided on the appliance). Monitor the situation, as long as the fire stays in the oven all is well. The oven is listed to withstand the heat generated by the self-cleaning process. If by any chance the fire escapes the oven call 911 immediately.
Candles should also be placed away from Christmas trees, and out of the path of travel of children and pets that may knock it into a tree. Fake battery operated candles are the safest. Check all lights before putting them on the tree for any cracks in the insulation. If they are cracked or fraying, dispose of them and replace them with a fresh set that bear the UL seal of approval. Check the cord after the lights have been on for a while. If the cord is HOT you have likely overloaded the electric capabilities of the cord. Replace with a larger size electric cord.
When folks think about the holidays, decorating, shopping and cooking, it is easy to put fire safety on the back burner. These tips could save your life!
Information gathered from several sources and authors in Fire Engineering, Firehouse, and Fire Rescue articles.
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