How to Keep Your Christmas Tree From Becoming a Fire Hazard

A Black mother and daughter decorating a Christmas tree in their home.

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • A Christmas tree that’s drying out and not being maintained properly can become a hazard in your home.
  • Fire departments in the United States respond to an average of 160 home fires that started with Christmas trees each year.
  • Fire experts say that watering your tree, being mindful about decorations, and keeping it away from heat sources can help prevent hazards like a house fire.

For millions of families, it’s a winter tradition to put up and decorate a fir tree for Christmas. While Christmas trees can bring joy, excitement, and brightness to your home, they can also bring hazards like house fires.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fire departments across the United States responded to an average of 160 home fires that started with Christmas trees each year between 2016 to 2020.

In addition, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 790 home structure fires per year that originated from holiday decorations, not including Christmas trees.

“We do see an uptick in fires [in December]—whether it be a combination of the tree catching on fire as well as the decorations on the tree,” Chief Butch Browning, EFO, CFO, the Executive Director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, told Verywell. “Much of this has to [do] with the flammability of the tree and if it’s dried out.”

Even though Christmas tree fires are not very common, Browning said they can still cause serious injuries, severe property damage, and even death—especially if they are not properly handled.

Whether you still have to pick out a tree or have one already set up in your home, brush up on these expert tips for safely taking care of your Christmas tree this season.

Pick a Fresh Christmas Tree

Christmas tree safety actually starts before you even bring one home. A spokesperson for the U.S. Fire Administration told Verywell that when you’re choosing a tree, make sure it’s as fresh as possible.

You can check a tree’s freshness by bending some of its needles in half with your fingers. If they are soft and don’t break, it means the tree was cut down recently. Trees that are less fresh are dry, so their needles tend to snap and break easily.

While you’re looking over your selection, check to make sure you won’t unintentionally bring home some critters that might try to hitch a ride into your home via tree. Look for small animal or insect nests that might be hiding in the tree.

“Sometimes, what looks like a brown knot on a branch may actually be an egg sack for insects,” the spokesperson said.

Trim the Trunk

Typically, sap seals the bottom of a trunk before a tree is purchased. This acts as a stopper that blocks the tree’s ability to draw in water.

To fix this problem, experts recommend trimming about a quarter to a half inch off the base of the tree right before you put it in a stand. This will help the tree take up water and absorb liquids more easily, preventing the dryness linked to fire hazards.

Water Daily

According to Browning, you should be watering your tree every day.

“When you take the tree out of their growing environment and put them in a home where you have heat and climate control, [trees] will take a lot of water for the first three to four weeks,” he said.

How much you water your tree will depend on its size. Smaller trees can be watered less frequently while bigger trees require more water to reach the tips of each branch. For example, a 6-foot Christmas tree needs at least 1 gallon of water daily to keep it fresh and hydrated.

Try getting into the habit of watering your tree every morning or setting a reminder on your phone to make sure you don’t forget.

Give Ornaments and Lights a Once-over

Many families wrap bright lights around their trees and adorn them with ornaments, ribbons, and stockings—but these delightful danglers can be dangerous.

Before placing decorations on your tree, experts say to check each ornament or bulb for damage and to check string lights for exposed wiring. Broken lightbulbs and frayed wires could cause shocks and fires.

“Electrical lights are the cause of most fires involving Christmas trees,” said Browning. “Make sure that those electrical strings are not damaged, there’s no exposed wiring, or bulbs that are missing.”

If you’ll be using an extension cord to power your Christmas tree lights, the Fire Administration advises being mindful of its length.

“Excessive cord lengths are often coiled and may build what is called ‘resistance heat,’ causing a failure of the extension cord itself,” the spokesperson said.

Experts also recommend turning off any Christmas lights when you’re not home and before going to bed.

Keep Away From Heat Sources

Avoid placing your tree near heat sources like lamps, radiators, active fireplaces, space heaters, and candles. These heat sources will dry out the areas closest to the tree branches.

“Follow the 3-foot rule,” Browning said. “Anything with an open flame or anything that has a hot element—whether it be the fireplace, candles, or space heater—should be kept 3 feet or further away from the tree.”

Browning suggests keeping the tree 5 to 6 feet away from a fireplace for an added layer of safety, and doing your best not to block doorways that serve as entrances and exists. In the event of a fire, the tree could block your ability to move around and exit your home safely.

Be Timely About Trashing Your Tree

One way to know that it’s time to get rid of your tree? When you notice tree needles collecting on the floor beneath it.

If your area doesn’t offer tree removal pick-up services of drop-off sites, be mindful of where you place it on the curb. Browning said a dry tree is still a fire hazard outdoors, and it should be a safe distance from your home or other garbage.

2 Sources
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  1. National Fire Protection Association. Winter holidays.

  2. National Fire Protection Association. Christmas tree fires.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.