‘Tis the season for Christmas trees.
As Canadians celebrate with family and friends, experts are sounding the alarm on potential hazards since fire accidents are quite common during the holiday season.
“One out of every five fires are caused by a natural Christmas tree in and around the Christmas season,” said Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC).
Other than cooking, candles are another leading cause of fires over the holidays, according to James Donaldson, a fire prevention officer at the University of Toronto.
He estimates that approximately 200 fires involving Christmas trees and lighting occur each year over the course of the winter season across Canada — fires that are sometimes deadly.
During the 2020-21 winter season, at least five people were killed by dry Christmas trees that caught fire in Ontario, according to provincial officials.
In Toronto specifically, Christmas trees ignited three fires in 2019 and two in 2020.
In Halifax, N.S., emergency crews were busy on Christmas Day a couple of years ago responding to around 20 calls, including two significant structure fires.
Also in 2020, a fire on the evening of Christmas Day caused $300,000 in damage to two homes in Saskatoon’s Riversdale neighbourhood. No injuries were reported.
Besides Christmas trees, there is increased use of space heaters, candles, electrical cords, lighting for trees and other ornamental décor during the holiday season.
All of these factors play into a higher prevalence of fires, said the Toronto Fire Services Public Information Office.
After two years of COVID restrictions, more people will be hosting in 2022 and having guests around.
Experts say it is important to have a fire escape plan and a properly functioning smoke alarm system in one’s house.
In the United States, 160 home fires began with Christmas trees, resulting in two civilian deaths, 12 civilian injuries, and US$10 million in direct property damage, on average each year between 2015 and 2019, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Better awareness and fire protection systems in homes have led to a reduction of fires caused by Christmas trees in Canada, said McMullen, but there is still an “additional risk factor.”
When picking your Christmas tree, there are a number of things you can do to ensure safety and get the right one suitable to keep in the house.
McMullen advised selecting a tree that was cut most recently because trees dry out over time and become susceptible to catching fire.
“We always want to make sure that the pine needles that are on our Christmas trees are … staying on the tree,” he said.
Checking the bottom of the tree for sap is a good indicator of how fresh the tree is, said Donaldson.
Tree branches should be flexible — meaning they can bend without the needles coming off, he said. You can shake the branches or run your hands along them and even pound the tree on the ground to make sure the needles don’t fall off.
Christmas trees are very flammable especially when they get dry and brittle, which is why they should be watered daily, experts say.
“That dry Christmas tree actually is quite a dangerous situation that we don’t want people to get caught off guard with,” said McMullen.
Donaldson said in many residential buildings only artificial trees can be used, so you have to first make sure you are even allowed to bring a live Christmas tree home.
As part of its holiday fire safety tips, the CAFC advises people to keep their Christmas trees at least three feet away from any heat sources, like a fireplace, radiator, candle or stove.
The tree should not be blocking doors, windows or any other exit routes, to allow for easy escape in case of an emergency.
A solid stand should secure the tree — and if you see it getting wobbly, a guide wire can be used to attach it to the ceiling at top, said Donaldson.
More than one-third of home decoration fires are started by candles, according to the NFPA.
This is why the CAFC is urging Canadians to avoid using real candles for their holiday decorations and “go flameless” this season.
Those who do choose to use candles are advised to keep them at least 12 inches away from anything combustible, CAFC says.
The city of Ottawa is advising residents to keep candles in a sturdy container, away from pets and children and to blow them out when leaving the room.
Lighting used on the trees must be approved by the Canadian Standards Association, officials and experts say.
Donaldson recommended putting a maximum of 100 lights per foot of the tree. So, a six-foot tree should have no more than 600 lights, he said.
LED lights use less power and produce less heat, so those are a good option for Christmas decorations.
Old and frayed wires can result in an electrical spark, McMullen cautioned, and so strings with visible signs of breakage or wear should not be used.
Residents are also reminded not to overload extension cords and power bars — if more outlets are required, a licensed electrician should install them.
To ensure safety, all decorative lighting should also be turned off at night before people go to bed.
Once the holiday season ends, Christmas trees should not be stored in and around the house, especially in a garage, which could have heating sources such as vehicles and heaters, experts say.
Most municipalities have a recycling program for Christmas trees. People should contact their local authorities and dispose of their trees safely in a designated location.
The maximum time to keep the Christmas tree up before it can become unsafe is “four weeks,” said Donaldson.
“They’re not to be just left lying around in and around your house until the summer months when you think you’re going to dispose of it yourself,” said McMullen.