Playing it Real Safe with a Real Tree

By Erik J. Martin

There’s nothing quite like the look, smell, feel, and overall effect of a fresh-cut Christmas tree in your living room. Whether it’s a Douglas fir, Scotch pine, silvertip, or other species, a genuine tree adds organic authenticity and unique charm to your home’s holiday decorating scheme and can make your neighbors and visitors green with envy.

Many people enjoy the anticipated family tradition of going to a tree farm to pick out a special fresh tree that will be the centerpiece of their home for up to six or more weeks. They smell wonderful, are nice to touch, and the appearance is distinct – imperfections and all.

Many suffer from the misconception that real Christmas trees are bad for the environment. But these trees are grown on tree farms in every state across the continental US and take up to 15 years to reach harvesting size.

During that time, they improve air quality by emitting oxygen, provide habitat for wildlife, and provide employment for tens of thousands of people from the farm to the tree lot. Plus, real trees are recyclable and biodegradable, unlike artificial trees made of PVC, metal, plastic, and other non-recyclable materials that ultimately end up in landfills.

Problem is, genuine trees come with risks that can make the holidays more hazardous if you’re not careful. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments typically respond to an average of 160 home fires annually that were started by Christmas trees, with real Christmas trees causing an estimated two-thirds of these fires. Every year, these blazes result in an average of two deaths, 14 injuries, and $10 million in direct property damage.

While natural and artificial trees are combustible items, natural trees continue to dry out over time so that the longer they remain in the home, the more they will continue to dry out. A dried-out tree can go up in flames within seconds, presenting a serious fire hazard.

To decrease fire threats and other hazards, experts strongly recommend following best practices. That starts with selecting a real tree that has fresh, green needles that don’t fall off immediately when touched. Cut off two inches from the trunk’s base prior to placing the tree in your tree stand at home. Also, ensure that the tree is a minimum of three feet away from any heat source, including candles, lights, radiators, fireplaces, or heat vents. Be sure your tree does not block any exit points, too.

Additionally, water the tree immediately after you bring it home. It will drink a lot the first few days. Check the water level every eight hours or so and refill as necessary.

When it comes to lighting your tree, only choose lights listed and tested by a qualified testing laboratory, such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories).

Make sure to check outdoor lights for a label showing that the lights have been certified for outdoor use, and only plug them into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)-protected receptacle,” Debra Holtzman, child safety and health expert, advises.

Inspect your light strings carefully, and replace any strings that have broken or worn cords; tighten any loose bulb connections, as well. And don’t forget to turn off any holiday lights before hitting the pillow or leaving home.

Above all, never use lit candles to decorate any Christmas tree.

“In addition, prevent your tree from becoming a tipping hazard by inserting it in a sturdy stand rated for the size of the tree, securely anchoring it in place, and, if necessary, putting a safety gate around it if you have pets or small children,” adds Holtzman.

Just as importantly, send that tree to the curb punctually once the holidays are over or when the tree becomes too dry. Do not store a dried-out tree on your property or against your home.

By recognizing where potential Christmas tree hazards exist and taking the simple steps to minimize them, people can greatly reduce the risk of having a fire or accident and safely enjoy the season.