ROCKINGHAM — For many, picking out the perfect live Christmas tree and sipping eggnog or hot chocolate beside a crackling fireplace are part of ushering in the holiday season — but the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials say this can be a dangerous time of year when it comes to house fires.
According to FEMA’s website, one of every three home Christmas tree fires is caused by electrical problems, and that while such fires are not common, they are more likely to be serious when they occur. FEMA estimates one of every 31 reported home Christmas tree fires results in a death compared to an average of one death per 144 total reported home fires.
The agency also warns that most candle fires in homes occur during December.
Rockingham Fire Department Chief Harold Isler said that during his two and one-half years with the department, there haven’t been any Christmas tree fires in the city.
“But my last department in Goldsboro, we had them there,” he said. “A lot of the time, people get trees and they don’t remember that once you get a tree out of nature, you’ve got to keep it alive. As the season goes on, a lot of people put the trees up around Thanksgiving and start forgetting to water them. They have a long time when they can dry out.”
Isler added that dried-out trees covered in lights connected to electricity are the usual suspects when it comes to Christmas tree fires, but outdoor decorations pose specific threats of their own.
“Watch the drop cords,” he said. “If you’re using lights outside make sure they are the outdoor variety and are well-insulated. The little brown cords like you can get at the dollar stores — I’ve seen where people plug them in together and put them outside. Then they short out. They’ll plug one in and hook a second one up to it and use it for outside lighting, and it can cause a big mess. Once it rains they will short out and catch fire. People need to keep that in mind.”
The fire chief also offered words of wisdom about the safe use of fireplaces.
“Make sure you get a certified chimney sweep to come and clean out the chimney prior to the season, prior to burning it anyway,” he advised. “I have seen a couple of chimney fires since I’ve been here. Those are almost always because of creosote and a buildup of soot that’s on the inside walls of the chimney, and it depends on what kind of wood your’e burning inside there. About 90-some percent of the time, that creosote is going to be the problem with it.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.