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How To Prevent Christmas Tree Fires

Updated Dec 21, 2022

Updated Dec 21, 2022

Home > Home Insurance > How To Prevent Christmas Tree Fires

There are few holiday decorations as striking and beautiful as the Christmas tree. It acts as a glowing centerpiece for your living room, displaying ornaments and lights for the whole family. However, while beautiful, a real Christmas tree is also a fire hazard and presents a risk of combustion that, while rare, can result in structural damage or worse. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), from 2016 to 2020, Christmas tree fires resulted in over $12 million in direct property damage, 12 civilian injuries, and two civilian deaths. 

In this article, we’ll address the risks associated with a Christmas tree fire, explain how dangerous it is, and go over all the best ways to prevent it. 

How Dangerous Are Christmas Tree Fires?

Christmas tree fires account for only 0.1% of all at-home fires and deaths, but they’re extremely dangerous when they occur. When a Christmas tree catches on fire, you have, on average, less than one minute before the flame begins to leap and spread to other objects. Unfortunately, due to the way Christmas trees are positioned in the home, sitting next to couches, curtains, and on top of rugs, they tend to spread fire quickly and easily. 

christmas tree in living room
Image Source: Canva

A Christmas tree on fire burns fast and hot, creating high amounts of heat energy, smoke, and flame very quickly. This rapid and intense combustion is because conifers like the Douglas fir, some of the most popular Christmas tree species, turn into massive piles of kindling once dry. Pine trees are more combustible than other species and tend to burn hotter and faster due to their concentration of resin and sap. Both substances are highly flammable and dangerous when ignited. Pine trees also have a wide, porous surface with many air pockets between branches, creating a system that pulls in oxygen quickly to fuel open flames. 

This National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) video shows how fast a Christmas tree on fire can spread. 

In this video, we can see that in just under 12 seconds, a dry Christmas tree fire can burst from a small spark in its center to an over-5-foot-tall gout of flames and smoke. Then, at 20 seconds, the entire tree is engulfed in flames, creating a flashover and igniting nearby objects only five seconds later. 

What Are the Most Common Causes of Christmas Tree Fires?

The root cause of most Christmas tree fires is improper care and maintenance of the tree. Real Christmas trees need to be watered daily, requiring 1 quart of water per inch of the diameter of the tree’s cut end. A typical 7-foot tall real Christmas tree will have a trunk diameter of between 4 and 6 inches, meaning it will need 4 to 6 quarts (one to one and a half cups) of water per day. If not properly watered, a Christmas tree will quickly dry out, becoming little more than a massive pile of kindling. 

cozy fireplace during Christmas
Image Source: Canva

While a well-watered tree can still catch fire, ignitions are less likely, and the resulting conflagrations will be less intense, less likely to spread, and more easily managed. Compare the difference between a fully dried-out tree and a well-watered tree in the following video: 

Several factors can lead to a fire in the presence of a dried tree. According to the NFPA, Christmas trees are most likely to catch fire in the living room, den, or sitting area, with 42% of incidents happening in these locations. Just under half of all Christmas tree fires stem from electrical or lighting equipment like Christmas lights, cords, plugs, lamps, and bulbs. In cases involving electrical objects, many resulted from a short or malfunction. Of all the electrical devices, decorative lights were the most common, involving 17% of all fires. 

Other sources include candles, external fire sources, and heating equipment. In these cases, the problem often arises from a dry Christmas tree placed too close to a flame source. For example, since Christmas trees are often placed in dens and close to fireplaces, stray sparks can leap onto a branch causing combustion. Similarly, if a tree is too close to a mantle or coffee table hosting lit candles, and those candles are spilled or knocked over, it can result in a fire. 

How To Prevent Christmas Tree Fires

Preventing your Christmas tree from catching on fire comes down to upkeep, conscious planning, and good fire safety habits. To make your Christmas tree as safe as possible during the holiday season, keep the following holiday safety tips in mind: 

  • Properly water your Christmas tree: Watering your tree daily will help prevent fires, keep the tree looking better, and reduce the number of pine needles to sweep up. Furthermore, you don’t need to add sugar or other additives to the water, these are myths, and plain tap water will do just fine.
  • Saw a few inches off the bottom of the tree: Making a fresh cut on the bottom of the tree stump will help it better absorb water. You only need to cut off about 2 inches for this to be effective, or if you’re hesitant to do so yourself, you can ask the tree farm to do it at purchase. 
  • Choose the right spot for your Christmas tree: You should keep your tree between 3 to 5 feet away from the sides of your fireplace and between 5 to 10 feet from the front of it. It should also be at least 3 feet from radiators, candles, heat vents, and other heat sources. 
  • Don’t use candles on or near the tree: Some holiday traditions see the use of lit candles being tied or placed onto a real tree. While this is an older tradition that doesn’t see much use anymore, many families still enjoy using candles around their homes during the holidays. If you use candles, be sure not to place them close to the tree, and never leave them lit overnight. 
  • Use holiday lights correctly: Holiday lights typically come in one of three overarching varieties: Those designed for indoor use, outdoor use, or both. You should never use lights designed for one area in another. 
  • Thoroughly inspect holiday lights: Before wrapping your Christmas tree in lights, always give them a thorough inspection for tears, shorts, and missing bulbs. If you discover one of your strings of lights has damage like cracked, frayed, or split wires, discard and replace it. As for blown fuses or missing bulbs, those can be easily repaired. 
  • Never leave your Christmas lights on overnight: You should never leave your Christmas tree lights on unattended or at night. 

Final Thoughts on Holiday Safety

couple decorating a christmas tree
Image Source: Canva

A real Christmas tree is a beautiful, fun holiday tradition that the whole family can enjoy decorating. However, if not properly cared for, it can catch fire and cause serious damage, physical harm, or even death. If your Christmas tree catches fire, never try to put out the fire if it’s larger than a small trash can; instead, keep a cool head and get everyone out of the home as quickly as possible. Once safely away from the flames, immediately contact the fire department. But, as long as you keep your tree watered and only use well-maintained holiday lights, you can keep your holidays safe and festive.

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