Christmas tree fire prevention safety tips

- January marks the one-year anniversary of a massive Annapolis mansion fire that killed a couple and their four grandchildren. Investigators say the blaze on January 19, 2014 was caused due to a dry Christmas tree.

As the holiday season is in full swing, fire experts are launching a new reminder about how critical it is for you to water a live tree in your home.

Each year, there are 230 Christmas tree fires claiming nearly a half-dozen lives. To make sure that doesn't happen in your home, researchers at the University of Maryland are hard at work.

Dr. Issac Leventon burns for Christmas literally at the university’s Department of Fire Protection. On this day, he set three Christmas trees on fire to show how differently they burn.

"When you see it starting to dry out, bristles are falling off and it's starting to brown,” he said. “That's when you're going to see issues of where it's going to ignite really quickly.”

First up was a tree they bought two weeks ago and have watered regularly. The watered tree burns slow and steady just as predicted. It takes time for the entire tree to be covered in flames.

"For us, the difference is a wet and dry tree is going to be obvious and hopefully we can show why you should keep it healthy," said Dr. Leventon.

Next, they lit a dry tree that has not been watered in two weeks. You can see and feel a big difference in heat. In seconds, it's fully engulfed in flames -- faster even than Leventon thought.

"I expected it to take 20 seconds and it took 10 to 15, so it's not surprising that tree did grow [in flames] as quickly as it did,” he said.

Finally, one last test -- another dry tree. But this time, he had sprinklers spray water on the fire. The tree burns, but at a much slower pace than the last dry tree.

Three different Christmas trees, three different fires, but one common lesson.

"It's not a very common fire, but when they do grow and when they do ignite, you saw how quickly it's going to burn," said Dr. Leventon.

Clearly, the bottom line of this reminder is to water your trees and avoid a dangerous disaster this holiday season.

Although Christmas tree fires are not common, when they do occur, they are more likely to be serious.

Here are some Christmas tree safety tips from the National Fire Protection Association:

Picking the tree

  • Choose a tree with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched.

Placing the tree

  • Before placing the tree in the stand, cut 2" from the base of the trunk.
  • Make sure the tree is at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights.
  • Make sure the tree is not blocking an exit.
  • Add water to the tree stand. Be sure to add water daily.

Lighting the tree

  • Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory. Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use.
  • Replace any string of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections. Read manufacturer's instructions for number of light strands to connect. 
  • Never use lit candles to decorate the tree.
  • Always turn off Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed.

After Christmas

  • Get rid of the tree after Christmas. Dried-out trees are a fire danger and should not be left in the home or garage, or placed outside against the home. Check with your local community to find a recycling program. Bring outdoor electrical lights inside after the holidays to prevent hazards and make them last longer.

Click here for more Christmas tree fire safety tips from the U.S. Fire Administration.

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