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Christmas is right around the corner and the question everyone’s asking this year is: “Can my Christmas tree self-combust?” Just kidding. Very few people are asking that, but it’s still a good question.
Flaming Tannenbaums aren’t usual holiday table conversation for a reason. They’re statistically rare. There’s a bit of a discrepancy on the hard numbers, but if we go with the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), we see about 160 Christmas tree fires a year in the U.S., causing about $10 million in property damage, and two deaths on average.1
So while they’re not all that common, Christmas tree fires do happen, they’re sometimes deadly, and always extremely costly to repair. More importantly, when it does catch fire, it’s usually not the tree itself that’s to blame; it’s a human that hasn’t taken the necessary precautions.
But don’t worry, folks. Unless you’re sporting bubble lights from 1979, keeping your Nordic spruce safe and sound until St. Nick shimmies down the chimney shouldn’t cost much or take up too much of your time. I’ll show you how to do it, but first let’s take a quick look at the yule tree behavior you want to avoid at all costs.
Did You Know? Bubble lights, popular from the ‘50s through the ‘80s, aren’t necessarily fire hazards, but they’re usually filled with methylene chloride, which can poison you even if it touches your skin. When they get hot, they can also burst. So if you’ve got tykes running around this Christmas, nix the bubbles.
Before we get into the things you shouldn’t be doing with your Christmas tree, there’s one distinction we need to make. It’s actually one I’m loath to make because I have a soft spot for natural pine trees, but …
Live Christmas trees are more prone to fires — three times more likely, in fact, per The New York Times.2 And they’re 20 times more likely to cause some kind of bodily injury if an accident does happen.
Does that mean it’s time to trade your Douglas fir in for a shiny Upside Down Christmas Tree by Wayfair? Not at all. But you should take special care when you deck it out this year.
Now for that list of yule tree no-nos!
Yuletide Trivia: In 1980, there were 850 Christmas tree fires! Maybe the trees were dry that year or everyone was using lights from 1960. Whatever the case, the rates sank year upon year after that, making the first year of the “me decade” the Year of the Flaming Pines.
Sometimes living room real estate is scarce. Or you might like the aesthetic of a tree pushed flush up against the wall. We all have our own ideas of the ideal Christmas layout. But dry needles, pine resin, and high heat care not for our yuletide design choices. So don’t put your tree next to the radiator (or any other heat source). Under the right (wrong) conditions, it might start a bonfire next to your couch.
We’ve all been there. A charging cable starts fraying but we hang on to it until it’s literally hanging on by a thread because it’s just too much of a pain to replace. Not a good idea, folks. But when a tree in your house (real or artificial) is involved, it’s worse. Sparks can jump from worn-down or exposed electrical cords, and that’s all it takes to set your tree ablaze. When it comes to lights, you don’t necessarily have to toss a perfectly good set away because of one weak link. Just make sure that if you replace a dead bulb, it’s the same wattage as the rest.
Remember Clark Griswold’s setup in “Christmas Vacation”? It included 25,000 bulbs with 20-odd extension cords. (See above for a refresher.) Did you happen to see that big zap of juice that nearly took off Griswold’s head? You don’t want to inflict that kind of wattage on your tree. You’ll be just fine plugging three 100-bulb strings into a single outlet. That’ll only eat up about one of the 15 or 20 amps the average household circuit can safely handle. That’s if you’re using old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. LEDs will use up to 90 percent less energy.
Christmas Saving Tip: If you’ve got traditional incandescent bulbs, consider switching to LEDs. They burn a lot cooler and a lot less expensive to run.
It’s the same reason you don’t carpet your toaster or coffee maker. You never know what’s going through an electrical appliance’s mind. Ninety-nine percent of the time our gadgets behave just fine. But even a perfectly good extension cord generates heat. That heat can build up, sometimes to the point of combustion. If you’re really intent on hiding your cord, consider a baseboard cable clip, which gives you the best of both worlds: tidiness and visibility.
There’s nothing as pathetic as a once-proud and bountiful pine going all droopy and brown. (It’s just not right, people!) But there’s another reason you’ll want to keep your Christmas tree as hydrated as possible. If there’s an accident — your kids nudge it a little too close to the radiator or a stray ember shoots out of the fireplace — a dried-out tree will be easy fodder for a fire. Read on for a tip on how to keep your live tree moist and pliant until New Year’s.
We’re all proud of our Christmas trees, bubble lights, Elvis ornaments, macaroni sculptures, and all. It may be tempting to put them on full display 24/7, especially if your tree graces the living room window. Don’t risk it. According to the NFPA, 31 percent of Christmas tree fires are the work of electrical malfunctions. If your Christmas wiring goes haywire when you’re in bed, you might not smell the smoke until it’s too late.
FYI: Most Christmas tree fires happen between 6 p.m. and midnight, not in the depths of the night.
I’m sure most of you probably get this: You’re not Charles Ingalls and this isn’t “Little House on the Prairie.” And yet, according to the NFPA, candles started eight percent of the Xmas tree fires between 2010 and 2014.3 Whether those were candles on trees or candles next to trees isn’t clear. Let’s just say, to keep absolutely safe, we want candles nowhere in the vicinity of your tree.
Your yule tree isn’t a yule log. Evergreens like pines and firs are saturated with turpentine oil, a natural accelerant. If that oil builds up in your chimney in the form of creosote, you’re at risk of a chimney fire, which can burn down your house. Six percent of Xmas tree fires start in chimneys, which is more than enough reason to never heat your home with your Santa wood.
Natural vs. Artificial: If you have an artificial Christmas tree, you’re actually in good company. According to the American Christmas Tree Association, in 2021, only 16 percent of the odd 94 million Christmas trees in U.S. homes were real. The other 84 percent were fake.4
Now we know what to avoid for a fire-free Christmas. What should you be doing? Here’s a quick checklist.
Did You Know? The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) ran a series of “burn room” tests in 2007 where they simulated Christmas tree fires. Pine trees that had been watered burnt for about a minute and a half and then went out. Unwatered trees continued to burn unchecked.5
Chances are, you’re not going to have a Christmas tree fire over the holidays, but the risk is always there if you don’t set up, maintain, and dismantle your tree safely.
Artificial trees, which the vast majority of Americans use, are actually safer, according to official stats, but that doesn’t mean you have to ditch your beloved pine. You’ll just need to take extra care while it’s in the house to make sure it gets a drink of water every day (and don’t forget to cut the stump first).
National Fire Protection Association. (2022, Dec). Christams Tree Fires.
The New York Times. (2019, Dec 7). Are Live Christmas Trees Really Fire Hazards?
National Fire Protection Association. HOME CHRISTMAS TREE FIRES FACT SHEET.
American Christmas Tree Association. (2021, Dec 9). 75 Percent of U.S. Households, or 94 Million Homes, Will Display A Christmas Tree in 2021 Despite Supply Chain and Shortage Challenges.
National Institute of Standards and Technology. (2008, May). Impact of a Residential Sprinkler on the Heat Release Rate of a Christmas Tree Fire .