Fire risk heats up over the holidays

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published December 20, 2016


Freshly cut trees, festive decorations and home-baked treats are all mainstays of the holidays, but they also present a fire risk, quickly turning a happy holiday into a hazardous one.

The problem is, there’s no way to tell when a fire will strike.

“No one ever thinks it will happen to them — until it does,” Jim Pauley, National Fire Protection Association president and CEO, said in a statement.

Over the holidays, the risk of fire only increases, according to Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik, simply because there are more opportunities for things to go wrong.

“You have the Christmas tree. You have the lights. You have additional decorations that may or may not be combustible, and we tend to have more hustle and bustle. What I mean by that is, you are looking to cook dinner and change and get ready for people, so people leave the stove unattended or put something in the oven and forget about it. We also have packages that are wrapped in paper, and we have packaging materials that don’t always get put away, so what we really see is more opportunities for accidents to happen,” he said.

The good news, according to Cieslik, is that steps can easily be taken to make Christmas safer.

Cooking fires are the leading cause of U.S. home fires and injuries year-round, according to the NFPA, which said that Christmas Day and Christmas Eve rank second and third — after Thanksgiving — as the leading days for home cooking fires. Unattended cooking is the leading cause of U.S. home fires and home fire injuries — a risk that Cieslik said only increases as families cook hams and turkeys, and bake desserts for the holidays.

Those manning the oven, stove or grill should make sure there’s a fire extinguisher in the kitchen that’s easily accessible. Cieslik also urges people to never leave whatever they are cooking unattended, and to set a timer while baking or roasting to make sure food isn’t forgotten.

“If you are going to get distracted or you do need to go to the door, turn the stove off or put the pan on a burner that hasn’t been used so that you are not getting drawn away and leaving something unattended,” he stressed.

Fire officials urge parents to keep kids away from the cooktops and ovens so they don’t get burned.

“As much as we want to keep our children involved in Christmas, we need to make sure that we pay attention to what we let them do in the kitchen so that we are not letting them spill a pot of boiling water on them or get burned by hot pans or equipment,” Cieslik said.

Christmas trees are another risk for a potential home fire. NFPA officials said that although Christmas tree fires are not common, when they do occur, they’re much more likely to be serious. One of every 34 reported home Christmas tree fires results in a death each year, NFPA officials said, compared to an annual average of one death per 142 total reported home fires.

Cieslik said those who do set up live trees should keep them no longer than two weeks, keep the water filled in the pans of the trees at all times, and set them up away from heat sources — like vents and fireplaces — and in areas that will not block any exits to the home.

Electrical distribution, or lighting equipment, was involved in 35 percent of Christmas tree fires between 2009 and 2014, according to the NFPA. Fire officials recommend only using lights that include the label of a recognized testing laboratory. People can further limit the risk of fire by following the manufacturer’s instructions for usage — such as only using indoor lights inside — replacing any string of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections, and following the manufacturer's instructions for the number of light strands to connect. Fire officials also suggest turning off all light strings and decorations before leaving home or going to bed.

December is the peak time of the year for candle fires, often used in holiday decorations — Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day being the top three days of the year for such fires, according to the NFPA. In fact, NFPA officials say two of every five home decorations fires are started by candles.

Although candles are beautiful to look at, Cieslik said they cannot be left unattended. Fire officials say candles need to be at least 12 to 24 inches away from anything that might be combustible. They should have a glass shell that can go over them, and they need to be blown out when people leave the room or go to bed.

“If you want the look of a candle without having to be around, they make some real pretty battery-powered candles that even have a light bulb that flickers and everything,” Cieslik suggested.

As the holidays draw near, Cieslik urges residents to keep fire safety in mind. He suggests checking all fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, and replacing the batteries in any that might need a new set. He also recommends purchasing a small fire extinguisher from a home store, which is available for around $25, or testing an extinguisher if you already have one.