The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 26, 2012

Christmas tree care still crucial, fire officials say

Kathy Mellott

JOHNSTOWN — The bags of torn gift wrap are by the curbside and the cookies are turning stale, but the Christmas tree continues to stand in the corner, increasingly dropping its dry needles as the holiday season enters one of its most dangerous times for fire.

With the start of the new year – the time when many families remove the lights and ornaments and drag the yule tree out of the house – a few days off, firefighters are urging people to remember that live tree care is as important now as it was in the days leading up to the big holiday.

“People need to continue to make sure it gets plenty of water. They need to make sure it is hydrated until it is out of the house,” said Johnstown fire Chief Anthony Kovacic.

While house fires caused by dry trees or malfunctioning light sets have declined in recent years, fire awareness has to remain a priority for everyone, said Ron Springer, director of Cambria County Emergency Management and a longtime volunteer firefighter.

“People are more aware of using the right lights, even on artificial trees, but overloaded electric circuits can be a problem,” Springer said.

The National Fire Protection Association agrees that although Christmas tree fires are not common, they do occur and have a higher chance of being deadly because a dried-out Christmas tree goes up in flames quickly.

“On average, one of every 66 reported home structure Christmas tree fires resulted in a death, compared to an average of one death per 144 total home structure fires,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA vice president of communications.

It’s a matter of looking at the number of needles that are dropping each day to determine if the tree should be taken down, even if it is earlier than usual, Carli said.

“Once you start to see more fall, the tree is no longer fresh and it’s time to get rid of it,” she said.

But even after the tree is down, additional caution is needed, she said.

Dried trees should not be kept in the house or garage and should be taken as far away from a structure as possible until they are disposed of.

Carli recommends:

• Never unplug electric decorations by the cord, but use the gripping area to avoid damaging the cord’s wire and possibly leading to fire or electric shock.

• Inspect all electric string lights before putting away and throw out sets with loose connections, broken sockets or cracked or bare wires.

• Wrap light sets around a piece of cardboard or place in individual plastic bags.

• Store electrical decorations in a dry place where they cannot be damaged by water or dampness.

As the weather swings into full winter mode and the temperatures drop, Kovacic said as long as the live tree is in the house, special attention needs to be paid to the location of alternative portable heating sources.

Springer said the caution needs to be taken one step further with carbon monoxide heaters needed in homes to warn of life-threatening fumes the alternate heating sources can produce.

Caution also is needed during weather-related power outages when alternate forms of lighting are used.

“Don’t use an emergency light  – be it kerosene lamps or candles – to walk around with,” Springer said.

And use of candles, even just for aesthetic purposes, should aways be done with caution, both fire officials said.

“Candles should never be used on any type of tree or wreath, and candles should never be left unattended,” Springer said.

Equally important, he said, is to keep candles out of the reach of children and the elderly, especially if the candles are located in a place where a person could trip and fall into them.

Kovacic said an unattended candle can cause a fire in a short time if it is placed too close to draperies, especially light- weight window coverings.

What to do with old trees

Christmas tree disposal and reuse:

Johnstown residents:

Take trees to the Derby Street parking lot for city to shred and use for mulch.

Somerset Borough:

Curbside pick-up in early January. Dates yet to be set.

All others:

Contact local borough or township office to check on drop-off or pick-up services.

Check with county recycling departments about possible recycling service.

Some other possible uses:

• Secure them to a tree or post and use branches for suet and bird feeders.

• Find a local sportsmans organization for other uses.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.