Safety for Your Holiday Décor

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When I was a teenager, I was home alone with my sister when a smoke alarm went off in a distant room. As we raced toward the noise, we could see firelight dancing on the wall.

Instinctively, we both braced ourselves as we came around the corner into that room. Tall flames were leaping up from the table. After some screaming and sloshing water around, we managed to extinguish the blaze. We had naively left a decorative candle unattended on the table, and when it burned low, its cloth-wrapped holder had burst into flame.

Everyone loves the warm glow of a candle or string of lights during the holiday season, but the combination of these elements and greenery or floral decor can be deadly. The National Fire Protection Association reports that Christmas trees cause approximately 160 home fires annually. There are also 22 house fires caused by candles daily in America, and the two peak days are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Many of these fires could have been easily prevented through some simple steps.

Here’s what you need to know about keeping your holiday decor from becoming a hazard, especially if you plan to use natural greenery or a fresh-cut Christmas tree.

Choose carefully
Make sure any trees, natural wreaths or garlands you buy are fresh. You can check this by bending the needles between your fingers (fresh pine needles won’t easily snap), bouncing the tree trunk on the ground (if it’s fresh, needles won’t come raining down); or tugging on the needles (they shouldn’t be easy to pluck out).

Keep it from drying out
Any natural greenery or tree will dry out over time, but you can slow that process by misting it with an anti-desiccant spray to put a waxy coating on its needles or leaves and prevent the evaporation of water. Purchase a spray at your local home and garden store, or make your own by adding one drop of pine oil per quart of water.

Just add water
It’s important to keep your greenery hydrated. When you get it home, trim off the ends of each stalk or trunk to remove any dry sections. Then immediately soak wreaths or boughs in water before you display them. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, a live tree can drink a quart of water per inch of trunk diameter per day. It’s important to keep your tree’s reservoir full. It’s harder to keep pine sprigs or garlands soaking in water while they are on display, but one bit of folk wisdom is to poke their stems into a potato, which will provide them with moisture, and hide the potato behind your arrangement.

Consider fire-proofing
There are many commercial fire-retardant sprays available to mist your tree or greenery. These will add a coating of a non-flammable material that can’t completely prevent fire, but it can make a tree or greenery burn more slowly and give you critical time to react to a blaze. You can also make your own fire retardant by mixing nine pounds of ammonium sulfate. which has very low toxicity and is sold as fertilizer at home and garden stores, with two gallons of water. Soak your tree in that solution for 48 hours before you bring it into the house so the tree will soak up the chemicals, making it more fire-resistant.

Location is key
Natural greenery must be kept as far as possible from any source of heat, such as a candle or incandescent lightbulb. Make sure you don’t have garlands drooping down in front of your fireplace, and keep displays away from places where toddlers might accidentally bump or grab them, pulling them closer to a source of heat or flame. According to the NFPA, 60 percent of candle fires and 44 percent of holiday decoration fires start because a candle, light or heat source is too close to a flammable object. Likewise, 25 percent of Christmas tree fires start because lighting or electrical equipment is too close to the tree.

Protect yourself from tiny Trojans
Fire isn’t the only way greenery can be a hazard. If you’re bringing natural foliage into your home, remember that it can be a host to other organisms such as insects, mold or mildew. To prevent these things from sneaking into your home on a wreath or tree, hose down the decor thoroughly before you bring it inside.

Dispose of it properly
When the holidays are over, if you’re not going to get rid of your tree or your greenery right away, pull it as far away from your house as possible. Dry greenery can burn even in the garage.
With these simple tips, you can enjoy the fresh look and smell of natural greenery while staying safe this holiday season. ■

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