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Holiday Hazards: Heed fire safety precautions for festive season

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In the classic film “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Clark Griswold’s myriad missteps — from overloading the electrical outlets with dozens of strings of lights, to inadvertently frying his aunt’s cat due to frayed strands of lights — never fail to get a laugh.

But those mistakes can cause serious trouble in the form of devastating fires when they are made outside of a movie studio.

Bryan Bailey and Jeff Brown, both firefighters with the Columbus Fire Department, said that at least 75 percent of the fires they respond to could be prevented if residents followed basic fire safety precautions, which are all the more important during the holiday season.

Brown said that between Dec. 24 and 26, about 12,600 fires occur nationally, resulting in an average of 34 fatalities and $92 million in damages.

“We’re not trying to scare anyone,” Bailey said. “But it hurts me to see other people hurt.”

One of the biggest causes of fires around the holidays is a dry Christmas tree, Bailey said. A well-watered tree will burn slowly if it ignites, giving you a little more time to grab a fire extinguisher. But a dry tree will be engulfed in flames in seconds, and the fire will spread quickly.

“Within two minutes, you will have a full-blown fire,” Bailey said.

Test a tree’s freshness by bending the needles. If they snap in half, the tree is too dry and needs to go. If the needles are flexible, the tree is getting enough water. Keep it that way by refilling the bowl in the tree-stand twice a day, and make sure the tree is placed away from heat vents.

If you’re going the artificial tree route, be sure to buy one labeled “flame resistant”. Brown said they tend to be a bit more expensive, but are worth the investment. Whether the tree is real or fake, keep it away from curtains, and be sure not to place it in front of an exit.

While cut greenery found in wreaths and

garlands might smell festive, there is no way to keep it watered, so go for the fake variety when decking your halls.

Lights, both indoors and out, also can pose a fire hazard. Brown said to start by visually inspecting lights and extension cords for broken bulbs, fraying and signs of dry rot. Any exposed wiring means the string must go.

If you have the lights illuminated for a several hours at a time, periodically feel the wires to make sure they aren’t getting too hot, and never connect more than three strands of lights together.

If new lights are on your list this year, splurge on LED lights, which generate less heat.

While Bailey said that using a power strip is fine, never plug a power strip into another power strip, which can overload an outlet.

“That’s a major no-no,” he said.

Outside, ensure that none of the extension cord connections are in an area where melting snow can cause water to pool. Don’t use an extension cord that is longer than you need it to be — when coiled up, longer cords can heat up, and that increased heat can spark a flame.

Candles are another cause for concern. Brown said to never leave a burning candle unattended, even if it is in a glass container. If the candle burns too low, the heat from the flame can crack the glass, causing highly flammable melted wax to spill and ignite.

Bailey said that kitchen fires tend to increase around the holidays as well, sometimes because home cooks can become distracted while entertaining guests.

“You are busy with your host duties, so it’s easy to lose track of what you are doing,” he said. He recommends staying in the kitchen until the cooking is complete. Double-check that all the burners are turned off before joining your guests.

And if a deep-fried turkey is on the menu, keep the fryer outdoors on a fireproof surface, such as a driveway, and never put a frozen bird directly into the fire. Bailey said firefighters responded to at least two fires last year in the county that were caused by that error.

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