Christmas Tree Fires: Statistics & Prevention Tips

By: Lucy Murphy, CISR

Lucy is a licensed property & casualty agent who has been working in the insurance industry for more than 30 years. She has recently earned her CISR designation.

Christmas Tree Fire Safety

Statistics you need to know & prevention tips to keep you and your family safe

Shopping, baking, decorating: With all the things you’re doing this time of year, taking extra time out for safety can seem like a tall order. But there are several basic precautions — like checking your cords and watering your tree every day — that can mean the difference between a happy holiday and a dangerous disaster. Here’s what you need to know to keep you and your family safe.

How many Christmas tree fires occur each year?

U.S. firefighters respond to roughly 200 Christmas tree fires per year, according to the National Fire Research Laboratory at NIST. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which keeps track of Christmas tree fire stats, charts a steady decline in tree fires since 1980, when Americans suffered nearly 850 tree fires per year! But tree fires are still happening too often, given the fact that they are largely avoidable.

Are Christmas tree fires dangerous?

Yes. A Christmas tree fire hazard is an unfortunate reality, and tree fires are more dangerous than people realize. Also, one out of every 52 reported home fires that started with a Christmas tree resulted in a death.

Can Christmas trees catch on fire from holiday lights?

About 25% of Christmas tree fires are the result of electrical problems or heat sources — including electric lights, fireplaces, radiators, and candles — kept too close to the tree. Additionally, about half of holiday decoration fires occur because decorations are placed too close to a heat source.

Luckily, there are steps you can take to ensure that you’re using Christmas lights as safely as possible:

  • Check all strings of lights carefully before hanging. It’s not uncommon for cords to suffer water damage or get gnawed on by rodents.
  • Throw away Christmas lights with frayed, chewed, or cracked cords.
  • Replace loose or broken bulbs; make sure you know the correct wattage for replacement bulbs.
  • Do not exceed maximum number of light strands that can be connected, as per manufacturer’s instructions on the box.
  • “Touch test” your extension cords after plugging them in and removing. They should not be hot.
  • Do not tuck extension cords under the tree skirt or other area rugs.
  • Unplug lights before going to bed or leaving your house.
  • Make a fresh cut on your tree stump before standing it (or ask the Christmas tree vendor to cut the trunk for you). Water it immediately and daily, for as long as the tree continues to take in water.
  • Choose the freshest tree you can find. Look for one with needles that don’t pull off easily, ideally with some sap on the trunk.

How fast can Christmas tree fires spread?

In controlled tests, fire researchers found that a dry Christmas tree can become engulfed in less than 10 seconds. And “flashover” occurs roughly 70 seconds after an unwatered tree is ignited. Well-watered trees, by contrast, do not usually allow flames to spread beyond one section of burning branches.

Are fake Christmas trees safer than real Christmas trees?

Real Christmas trees are three times more likely to be involved in a Christmas tree fire, compared to artificial trees. But that doesn’t mean artificial trees can’t catch fire. If you have a fake tree, you still need to be careful not to place it too near a heat source and to use appropriate lighting, according to all the manufacturer’s instructions. If you’re in the market for a new artificial tree, make a point to shop for a flame-resistant model.

Can I use indoor Christmas tree lights outside?

If you have to ask, you probably already suspect this is a bad idea, right? But do you know why? It has to do with whether or not the lights have been tested and rated for use in damp/wet conditions. If the lights aren’t sealed against moisture, they will probably stop working after heavy rain or snow. More importantly, if lights aren’t corrosion-resistant they could become an electrocution hazard as the insulation deteriorates and exposes electrical connections. Bottom line: Outdoor lights can be used inside, but inside lights should NOT be used outside.

When are Christmas trees a fire hazard?

Technically, a Christmas tree is always a fire hazard, but it can become more of one once the needles start to dry out. Experts recommend keeping live trees for no more than four weeks, and continuing to water them during that timeframe.

Dried-out Christmas trees can remain a fire hazard after the holidays, which is why it’s important to make arrangements to have them picked up as soon as possible; do not leave a dead tree in your garage or leaning up against your house.

Fortunately, many towns will pick up trees for free. Here’s the information for surrounding towns:

Christmas Tree Pickup in Mansfield, MA

Mansfield’s Highway Department usually collects trees and wreaths (for free) during the first two weeks of the new year. If you miss this window, you can also bring your tree (with proper transit sticker) to Recycle Park. In either case, trees must be completely bare of lights and ornaments. If you have any questions on this season’s schedule, contact the Mansfield Department of Public Works at 508-261-7335.

Christmas Tree Pickup in Attleboro, MA

The town of Attleboro also collects trees and wreaths, typically starting the second week in January. In addition to cleaning trees/wreaths of decorations, please do not place them in plastic bags. For information on this season’s pickup schedule, please contact Jessica in the Attleboro Health Department at 508-223-2222 Ext. 3245 or email Rubbishcollection@cityofattleboro.us.

Christmas Tree Pickup in Foxborough, MA

The town of Foxborough typically collects trees during the last few days of December and early January. They require no ornaments, no garland, and no lights. To get specific dates, contact the Foxborough DPW/Highway and Tree & Park Division at 508-543-1228.

Christmas Tree Pickup in Dedham, MA

Christmas trees will be collected by the DPW starting the week of Dec. 28 and continuing through the month of January (or until all trees are collected). Trees may not be collected on your regular trash day. Please place your tree curbside and free from tinsel, garland, lights, ornaments, and plastic. For more information, call the DPW at 781-751-9350.

How do you stop a Christmas tree fire?

If your Christmas tree catches fire, call 911 immediately. No matter what — even if you can put it out yourself — it’s best to call in the professionals. Even if the fire is out when they arrive, they can assess the situation and make sure it’s safe.

Here’s what the experts advise:

  • “Gauge the size” of the fire; a smaller fire can quickly spread and grow to other areas of the home.
  • If you can contain the flame before it becomes bigger than a small trashcan, and if you have the right type of fire extinguisher, use it quickly to extinguish the blaze.
  • If you’re using the fire extinguisher and the fire isn’t shrinking, it’s best to leave the area and wait for the fire department to arrive.

Bonus Holiday Safety Tips

  • Ensure your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are working properly.
  • Create a home escape plan; share it and practice it with your family and guests.
  • Leave at least 1 foot of free space around burning and never leave them unattended.
  • Keep space heaters away from anything that can catch on fire or burn.
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