Whether you try to go all Clark Griswold with the gaudiest Christmas decorations in the neighborhood or settle for a more modest display of your holiday spirit, it’s important to keep safety at the forefront as you get your house ready. Why? The National Fire Protection Association reports that fire departments across the U.S. responded to an average of 240 structure fires a year from 2005 to 2009 that started with Christmas trees. Those fires result in 13 deaths a year and property damage valued at $16.7 million.
While fire typically is covered in most standard home insurance policies, no one wants to suffer a loss over Christmas. The holiday is a time for eggnog and presents, not fire hoses and axes.
Here are a few more facts from the NFPA about Christmas fires:

  • Electrical problems were listed as cause in about a third of the blazes.
  • Trees were placed too close to heat sources in about 20% of cases.
  • About 13% of the fires involved decorative lights, while about 11% were started by candles.
  • Nearly 40% of the blazes began in the living room, family room or den.
  • In about 18% of cases, fires were set intentionally.

So what’s a Christmas tree lover to do?
Fire isn’t inevitable: There are several measures that can be taken to reduce the chance of trouble. Here is advice from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the NFPA about Christmas decorations:

  • Make sure you buy a fresh tree. Check that the needles are green and hard to pull from branches. The needles also shouldn’t break when bent. The trunk should be sticky with resin, and the tree shouldn’t lose many needles when banged on the ground.
  • Check your light strands, making sure that there are no cracked sockets or frayed wires. Throw out damaged strands. Any lights used, regardless of whether they’re put up inside or outside, should have been tested for safety by a recognized testing laboratory.
  • Use a maximum of three strands of lights with one extension cord.
  • Never use lighted candles on your tree or near any evergreen decorations such as wreaths.
  • Don’t place the tree near a fireplace or other heat source. And check the water level of your stand daily to make sure the tree doesn’t dry out.
  • Turn the lights off when you go to bed.
  • Use hooks to secure lights outdoors rather than nails or tacks. Insulated staples also will work. When taking strands down, don’t yank on them.
  • If you opt for an artificial tree, make sure it is labeled as fire resistant. It could still catch fire but should be more easily extinguished. If you have a metallic tree, do not use electric lights on it; faulty lights can cause the tree to store electricity.
  • Follow all directions strictly when using artificial snow sprays; many contain materials that can irritate lungs.
  • After Christmas, get rid of the tree once needles begin dropping. Don’t keep a dried-out tree in the garage or even outside against the house.

The other safety concern over Christmas decorating comes from falls. One study found that nearly 5,800 people fall annually and suffer injuries that require treatment at an emergency room. About 43% of the injuries came from falling off ladders while decorating. The rest were caused by falling off roofs. Make sure your ladder is large enough for the task you’re undertaking, and have a spotter with you to secure it while you hang the lights. Don’t reach too far; you’ll be much safer climbing down the ladder and moving it occasionally.
Bottom line: Don’t roast anything but chestnuts this Christmas season – particularly not your house. And decorators should be as safe going up ladders as Santa is coming down chimneys.