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Avoid Christmas combustion

When looking at tree decorated with white lights, popcorn strands and ornaments made of Popsicle sticks, few think of a dangerous fire. But officials say trees require care and consideration in addition to the strategically placed tinsel garlands.

Fires around the holiday season do happen.

About five years ago a Christmas tree fire destroyed a garage in southeast Jamestown, said Jim Reuther, Jamestown fire chief.

After Christmas a woman was taking the lights off of her live tree when it caught fire. The string of lights was believed to have shorted while in contact with the dry needles, starting the fire, Reuther said.

The woman was able to get the burning tree out of her house and into her garage, saving the home, Reuther said.

A few precautions can help people avoid fires involving Christmas trees.

Artificial trees are safer than live ones because they will not dry out and have less danger of catching fire, Reuther said. But taking proper care of a live tree and lights on the tree reduces the chances of a fire.

Reuther recommends making sure the lights used to decorate the tree are tested by Underwriters Laboratories, a product safety certification organization.

Vern Quam, Jamestown city forester, recommends keeping trees away from fireplaces, heaters, TVs, air ducts and walkways. Also, turn the tree lights off when no one is in the room, keep candles and other open flames away from the tree and check the light cords for frays.

A dry tree has the potential to engulf a room in flames in about 45 seconds, Reuther said. He also said live trees can be sprayed with flame retardant chemicals like latex-based coating.

The Jamestown Fire Department checks trees on display in places of assembly including churches, malls, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and businesses to see if safety guidelines are met.

"We're called the 'Grinches of Christmas' because of it," Reuther said. "We don't see it that often but it's for their own safety."

The places listed above must have an artificial tree or proof that their live tree has been treated with flame-retardant materials.

Artificial trees last longer and require less maintenance. But steps can be taken to increase the longevity of a live tree, Quam said.

Adding crushed aspirin or 7-Up when the tree gets watered every few days will open up the tree's pores and increase the water flow helping it stay alive longer, Quam said. Keeping water levels above the stump will also prevent the tree from sealing off with sap or resin, he said. If the tree does seal off it should be taken down and the stump should be re-cut, Quam said.

Trees need to be in secure stands, not be located close to occupants or in any aisle, corridor, exit way or in a position to block any door; lights must be UL approved; and trees must be placed a distance equal to their height away from candles and open flames.

Candles and decorations in public places also have list of safety guidelines that must be met, he said.

A complete list of holiday safety tips and guidelines can be found at www.fd jamestown.com/tips/html.

If a public place is not compliant with the guidelines Reuther said they will to ask have the decorations taken down. Anyone with any questions about safety guidelines can also call the fire department at 252-1441.

"By not taking these simple steps it could end up being an unfortunate holiday season," he said.

Sun reporter Ben Rodgers can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by e-mail at brodgers@jamestownsun.com