Seven ways to protect your home from fire this holiday season

The holiday season is called the most wonderful time of the year — but it also can be one of the most dangerous. Learn the best ways to protect yourself, your home and your family from fires during the holidays.
Written by: Haley Herfurth
Media contact: Yvonne Taunton

Closeup image of golden and red baubles on Christmas tree in front of burning fireplace. Beautiful Christmas backgroundThe holiday season is called the most wonderful time of the year — but it also can be one of the most dangerous. Learn the best ways to protect yourself, your home and your family from fires during the holidays.According to the United States Fire Administration, two in five home-decoration fires are caused by unattended candles, and one in four Christmas tree fires is caused by home electrical problems.

Common sense says not to leave fireplaces unattended or place plants too close to your radiator. But the small flame of a candle or forgetting to water a live Christmas tree can be as dangerous. 

Plus, using space heaters without safety precautions to stay warm during the winter months can cause problems, not just at home, but in your office environment as well. 

“Practicing winter holiday safety is extremely important,” said Robert Emmons, campus safety manager for the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Environmental Health and Safety. “It’s key to remember some basic safety tips to keep you and your family safe this season.” 

Protect yourself, your home and your family from the dangers of fires during the holidays:

Give your heat sources some space

Heat sources too close to Christmas trees cause one in four winter fires, according to the USFA. The Red Cross recommends keeping keep your trees, candles and other decorations, such as rugs and wrapping paper, at least 3 feet from fireplaces, radiators, space heaters, candles and heat vents.  

Mind your Christmas tree

Home tree fires are not common, the USFA says; but when they occur, they are dangerous: Someone dies in one of every 45 Christmas tree fires. The best way to prevent tree fires is to purchase a flame-retardant metallic or artificial tree, says the Red Cross; but if live trees are part of your traditions, be sure they have fresh, green needles that do not break easily. Then, water them often to ensure they do not dry out, which makes them more flammable.

towel accidentally catches fire on stoveCheck out my Tragedy SeriesCook with caution

The Red Cross advises holiday cooks to keep anything that can catch on fire, such as pot holders, oven mitts, wooden utensils, paper or plastic bags, food packaging materials, and towels or curtains, away from stovetops and ovens. And keep an eye on that special casserole you are making: According to the National Fire Protection Association, the leading cause of kitchen fires is untended cooking.

“If you are sleepy or have consumed alcohol, do not use the stove or stovetop,” Emmons said. “Plus, always stay in the kitchen when you are cooking food; if you leave the kitchen at all, be sure to turn off the stove and move anything that can catch fire away from it.”

Read all the instructions

There are limits to the number of holiday light strands you can string together, says the USFA, and each brand or model can be different. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions before decorating. Also, ensure your light strings are in good condition: If the cords are frayed or splitting, it is time to find replacements. 

Keep an eye on your candles

In old-fashioned Christmases, real trees were lit using wax candles. Now, holiday décor is much safer; but it is still important to keep candles at least 12 inches from anything flammable and 3 feet from your live Christmas tree, according to the USFA. It is possible to purchase electric menorahs or kinaras; but if you prefer to use traditional flammable candles, the Red Cross recommends setting them on a nonflammable surface, such as a tray covered in aluminum foil.

A halogen or electric heater on wooden floorUse space heaters responsibly

Follow the NFPA’s heater checklist when purchasing and setting up space heaters in your home. Nearly half of all space heater fires involve electric space heaters, so it is important to be cautious. Be sure the heater features automatic shut-off and tip-over protection, and always plug it directly into a wall outlet, rather than an extension cord. Always unplug them when you leave a room or go to sleep. 

“The NFPA says space heaters are involved in nearly 80 percent of fatal home fires,” Emmons said, and he recommends inspecting for loose connections and cracked or damaged plugs and cords.

UAB has a strict space heater policy to avoid fire hazards: Heating elements must be limited to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and the heater must be electric and automatically switch off if it tips over. Plus, heaters should be kept more than 36 inches away from combustible materials such as paper, curtains, furniture, clothes and trash.

Check your smoke alarm

Aside from decorating safely and smartly, smoke alarms are the first line of defense against home fires. The Red Cross recommends installing smoke alarms near kitchens, on each level of your home, near sleeping areas, and both inside and outside bedrooms. Replace batteries once per year, and test the alarm each month to make sure it works properly.