Decorating your home without turning it into a fire hazard

Nothing beats the smell of a fresh Christmas tree. But few things are as dangerous as a dried-out tree sitting in your living room.
A man dressed as Santa watches as a 12-metre white spruce tree is guided into place on the Boston Common in Boston on Nov. 21, 2008. Nova Scotia donates a tree every year to the people of Boston as a thank you for their help following the 1917 Halifax Explosion. ((Elise Amendola/Associated Press))
Ah, yes. December — when many Canadians go out, buy a dead pine tree, stick it in a container filled with water (which may be refilled at least for a couple of days), and string several cords containing brightly-lit heat sources around it.

Nothing beats the smell of a fresh Christmas tree. But few things are as dangerous as a dried-out tree sitting in your living room.

Fire Prevention Canada notes that preventable residential fires spike across the country in December. While cooking accidents are the most common cause of house fires, holiday decor can make your home a little more susceptible to fire.

There are ways to minimize the risk:

  • Make sure your real tree is fresh. It will be less likely to dry out and become a fire hazard.
  • Before you buy from your local Christmas tree vendor, examine the needles. Bend them between your fingers. They shouldn't break. Tap the tree gently on a firm surface. If an excessive amount of needles fall to the ground, it's too dry. Scotch pines tend to shed more needles than other types of Christmas trees.
  • Make a fresh cut on the trunk of the tree before you place it in your tree stand. The cut will help the tree absorb water. About two centimetres from the bottom should do.
  • Leave the tree outside — out of the wind and sun — until it's ready to decorate.
  • Water the tree often. The stand should hold at least four litres of water. Do not let the water level dip below the cut line. If you do, the cut will seal and the tree will stop absorbing water.
  • Secure the tree to keep it from tipping. Many of the newer "wide base" stands offer much more stability than older stands.
  • Keep tree away from floor heaters, fireplaces and other heat sources, as well as electrical outlets and electrical sources.
  • Remove the tree when needles begin to fall off in large quantities. NEVER burn your tree in a fireplace. Most municipalities recycle Christmas trees, turning them into mulch.

Making sure needles don't fall off the tree early is a key concern among Christmas tree farmers. The Nova Scotia government has given $250,000 to the provincial Christmas Tree Council to help fund its efforts to find out why needles drop — and to find ways of preventing it.

Nova Scotia devotes more land to commercial Christmas tree operations than any other province in the country and grows approximately two million trees a year.

Eighty per cent of those trees are exported to the United States — including one large tree that's given to the city of Boston every year as a thank-you for their assistance following the Halifax Explosion in 1917.

What to look for in a Christmas tree stand:

  • A very wide base. If it has legs, they should be very strong metal or a very hard plastic. 
  • Good screws to turn into the tree - not just plastic because plastic breaks easily - but metal screws are very important.
  • A spike in the centre of the stand gives the tree something that it will actually lodge onto.
  • Big enough to hold four litres of water.

Most popular live trees

About 40 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America every year. Of these, five to six million are grown in Canada.

The most popular include:

  • Balsam fir: dark-green in appearance with long-lasting needles, and classic Christmas-tree form. It also retains its pleasing fragrance. Balsam firs need up to 10 years in the field to produce a tree of slightly taller than two metres.
  • Fraser fir: similar to the balsam fir, but this species tends to keep its needles longer — up to six weeks, if cared for properly — than other Christmas trees. It can also cost almost twice as much as other trees.
  • Scotch pine: tree characterized by long needles. Tends to drop more needles than other trees. Was once the Christmas tree of choice in Canada but has slipped in popularity.
  • Colorado spruce: deep blue foliage makes it popular with some. Longer needles compared to other spruces. Handles heavy ornaments well.
  • White spruce: short needles with medium blue-green colour and prickly texture.
  • White pine: popular among some because of its very soft needles. However, those soft needles mean the tree can only handle light ornaments.

Getting your tree ready for the stand

  • Be sure to stand the tree in a bucket of water while it's waiting to be brought into the house.
  • Don't whittle the base if the tree stand doesn't fit; that makes it harder for the tree to absorb water. Get a larger stand.
  • Trim the lower branches if they prevent you from getting the trunk firmly planted in the base; cut limbs flush with the trunk, as you would if you were pruning a plant.

Artificial trees

Just because your tree isn't a freshly cut pine, doesn't mean you're off the hook. There are a few things to remember about artificial trees: 

  • Artificial trees should bear the CSA label. Plastic trees should be made of fire-resistant material. Keep them away from heat sources.
  • Never use electric lights on metallic trees. The result could be very shocking! Use spotlights to illuminate the trees from a safe distance.

Decorating safety tips

Christmas lights

  • Use only CSA-approved Christmas tree lights. Check for frayed wires and broken sockets. Get rid of damaged sets. They can shock a person or start a fire.
  • Don't use outdoor lights on an indoor Christmas tree.
  • Lights should not touch combustible materials.
  • Don't overload outlets. Never use more than three strings of lights on one circuit. Lights should not be used on trees with metal frames.
  • Miniature lights are safer because they produce less heat.
  • Never leave lights on when going to bed or leaving the house.

Other decorations

  • Keep candles away from Christmas trees. Never use candles as tree decorations.
  • When decorating the tree, place breakable ornaments on the higher limbs. It will protect your children and pets as well as safeguard the breakables.
  • Use flame-resistant decorations. Keep small ornaments that can be swallowed away from small children and pets.
  • Place tinsel higher on the tree out of reach of children and pets. If swallowed, it's a choking hazard.
  • Use non-flammable holders for candles. Keep them out of reach of children and pets. Don't leave them lit when going to bed or leaving the house.

It's not just fire hazards you should watch out for. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reports that November is the peak month for falls from ladders. Whether it's cleaning out gutters or setting up Christmas decorations, ladder falls sent more than 8,300 Ontario residents to hospital emergency departments in the month before Christmas in 2005.

People between 40 and 59 accounted for nearly half the visits, and men made up 82 per cent of emergency room patients who were injured by falling from a ladder.