Prevent Home Fires During the Holidays


Frosty weather, flickering candles and glittering decorations create holiday ambiance. They also account for thousands of personal tragedies each year.

Home fires increase significantly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and they’re often sparked by heating sources, candles and poorly placed decorations. To keep your home and family safe this holiday season, call your local furnace specialist or chimney sweep and be mindful with holiday decorations, especially candles.

Don’t Do It Yourself
Heating equipment is a leading cause of home fires during the months of December, January and February, second only to cooking equipment as a cause of home fires year-round, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Cindy Woodford has experienced this firsthand. As vice president of homeowners business for Unigard and General Casualty insurance companies, Woodford has seen poorly maintained furnaces and fireplaces cause lots of heartbreak – and a few close calls – during this otherwise joyous time of year. She recalls a lucky Unigard policyholder who had his chimney inspected before firing it up for the season. The professional chimney sweep found two hairline cracks that would have caused a dangerous fire the next time the homeowner used the fireplace.

Woodford also cautions against trying to clean your chimney, which could damage the flue lining, create hairline cracks or push highly flammable creosote into dangerous places. She warned of even more disastrous results when trying to check your furnace – remembering a policyholder who caused a propane explosion while checking for leaks. He was lucky to survive. His home did not.

“Bottom line, have your furnace and fireplace or wood-burning stove checked every year. And leave it to the professionals,” Woodford says. She also recommends checking out the home maintenance checklist at under Claims & Insurance Info and Safety Tips.

Candle with care
In December, nearly twice as many home fires start with candles than in an average month, according to the NFPA. And from 2000 to 2004 Christmas Day was the peak day for home candle fires, Christmas Eve ranked second, and New Year’s Day was third.

If you think you’re already careful with candles, consider this: A Unigard homeowner recently suffered significant damage after two playful cats swatted over a burning candle. One General Casualty policyholder went to meet the pizza guy on his front porch. During that short time, a candle ignited the home, and it burned to the ground.

Unigard and General Casualty experts offer the following reminders:

* Never leave a burning candle unattended.
* Keep candles where pets and children can’t reach.
* Put candles in fireproof, sturdy holders.
* Opt for flashlights during a blackout.
* Deck the halls with caution.

Home fires during the holiday season are more expensive and dangerous than the rest of the year, largely because of seasonal decorations (Christmas trees, strings of lights, wrapping paper, etc.).

The U.S. Fire Administration reports the average Christmas tree/decoration fire costs $27,259 compared to the average fire loss of $6,245. Even worse, the average fatality rate per 1,000 in a Christmas tree/decoration fire is 21.3, compared to the overall average of 2.5 (2001 – 2002).

To avoid becoming a statistic this season, consider these tips from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

* Look for artificial trees that are fire-resistant.
* Real trees should be green and fresh. Keep them well watered.
* Keep trees and other flammable decorations away from fireplaces, radiators, candles and other heat sources.
* Use no more than three standard-size sets of lights per single extension cord.

“Also, think about how long you’ve had those Christmas lights,” adds Jonathan Farris, assistant vice president at General Casualty. “If you’re using older lights, carefully inspect the wires for any signs of weakening and throw away problem strands.” He also notes that newer lights emit significantly less heat, making them much safer.

“The best advice is to use common sense. Don’t put ashes in a paper bag or leave spray paint cans near the fireplace or thaw your pipes with a blow torch,” Woodford says, citing more examples from the claims files. “It just takes one careless moment to cause a devastating house fire.”