When exposed to a heat source, Christmas trees can quickly burst into flames. Within minutes, this Douglas fir, three large boxes and two chairs were destroyed in the Owens Center for Emergency Preparedness.
It took some doing, but eventually a Christmas tree, gaily decorated with silver and red garland, strands of tiny white lights, and green and red ornaments, caught fire during a holiday safety demonstration conducted at Owens Community College's Center for Emergency Preparedness.
Faulty wiring was planned as the ignition point, but the fire training tower's safety devices, sensing a problem with the strand of tree lights, kept shutting the power down. As a result, event organizers went to Plan B.
As Mike Cornell, the center's director, noted that a Christmas tree fire can occur as a result of a heat source such as a candle or portable heater, a firefighter brought a glowing-red road flare into the homey scene inside the burn room.
It took not one but two road flares to spark sufficient flames to catch the Douglas fir on fire. Then, within a minute or two, the tree was destroyed. Three large boxes, wrapped in holiday paper, and two blue chairs near the tree were destroyed as well.
The demonstration last week was designed to show the worst case scenario of a holiday fire in which a Christmas tree is involved, Mr. Cornell said.
He and Perrysburg Township Fire Inspector Keith Feeney emphasized the need for people to follow proper procedures for caring for a real Christmas tree and for taking precautions to prevent holiday fires, such as keep heat sources away from wrapped gifts and decorated trees and never place open flames from candles, matches, or lighters near trees or other holiday decorations including cotton batting used to create drifts of "snow."
Among those attending the safety demonstration was Duke Wheeler, owner of the Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm, who came to the Center for Emergency Preparedness because he was concerned about how real trees would be portrayed during the activity.
Mr. Wheeler points out that Christmas trees don't burst into flames on their own, and said residential fires in which Christmas trees are the first item to burn are extremely rare.
Consider the numbers: A Christmas tree, either real or artificial, was the first item ignited in 190 home fires reported in 2009 in the United States, and about 125 of those fires involved real trees, and that same year, Americans put up 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees, said Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association that represents growers and promotes the use of real Christmas trees. Those figures show that only a "tiny, tiny, tiny" number, or 0.0004 percent, of real Christmas trees across the country were the first item ignited in home fires that year, he said.
According to the National Fire Protection Association's Web site, between 2005-2009, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 240 home fires that started with Christmas trees per year, causing an average of 13 deaths, 27 injuries, and $16.7 million in direct property damage annually.
A heat source too close to the Christmas tree started one of every five of these fires, and 18 percent of home Christmas tree structure fires were intentionally set with half of the intentional Christmas tree fires occurring in January, possibly related to disposal of the trees, according to the fire protection association.
Mr. Wheeler arrived at the center with a fresh-cut tree and other trees and was prepared to show how difficult it is to ignite a properly cared for Christmas tree. He said many factors contribute to home fires during the winter and holiday season, such as space heaters, candles, and Christmas lights, and he said he supports efforts to raise awareness about the prevention of fires, particularly at this time of the year.
Overloaded electric outlets and faulty wires are some common causes of holiday fires.
Mr. Dungey said he works with firefighters and others to encourage holiday fire demonstrations that provide homeowners with safety tips on proper care for real trees, as opposed to dramatic, fiery demonstrations that could scare people rather than inform them about how to avoid such scenarios.
A better demonstration, suggested Mr. Dungey, would be to show that trees, with proper care as outlined in the association's safety tips, are extremely difficult to ignite.
Firefighter Feeney said he doesn't want to scare people, but rather wants to draw attention to what can go wrong if people don't do what's right when it comes to taking care of a decorated tree.
"As long as people take care of a live tree, everyone should have a good holiday," Mr. Feeney said.
In the demonstration at the Center for Emergency Preparedness, a smoke detector near the holiday scene sounded almost as soon as the first wisp of smoke drifted through an open door of the training facility's room.
Mr. Feeney said every home should be equipped with smoke detectors year round. Smoke detectors must have working batteries, too, he said.
Last week during a monthly food giveaway at the former Perrysburg Township fire hall, people were given smoke detectors along with the boxes of canned goods and other items. Mr. Feeney had about 300 smoke detectors to donate during the food distribution. A local store donated some of the smoke detectors and another store provided a grant for purchase of additional smoke detectors.
After watching the demonstration, Mr. Wheeler was prompted to create a fire safety contest. He is asking area children to submit ways they keep their homes safe from fire during the holiday season. Fire prevention tips can be submitted to Mr. Wheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. Wheeler said he hopes the contest gets families talking about how best to keep everyone safe as the holiday season is celebrated. The goal of the effort is to reduce the number of home fires, he said.
Children between the ages 8 and 16 can enter the fire safety contest, and the winner is to be selected Dec. 17 by a person who has experience in fire safety.
The winner will receive a free fire alarm system, valued at up to $2,000, Mr. Wheeler said.
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