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Fire marshal offers tips for a safe holiday

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007

KITTANNING -- One of the most popular Christmas traditions is viewing a decorated live tree with its dazzling display of multicolored lights. However, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, within three seconds that sparkling evergreen can become an inferno, and in the next 40 seconds, engulf a room in flames.

Borough Fire Marshal Earl "Buzz" Kline said the holiday season is a joyous time and he and the 31 fire chiefs of Armstrong County would like to keep it that way.

"We've had our share of holiday fires," Kline said. "Such fires are fairly common nationwide and cause more than $6 million in property damage each year and claim an average of about six lives."

Kline said a few common sense precautions can prevent holiday fire tragedies.

"The biggest problem is dry trees," he said. "This year we have had some drought conditions and live trees are 'drier' than normal. If you have a live tree, you want to prevent it from drying out. This is done by keeping it in a stand that will allow it to be watered. When most trees are cut, sap forms at the base and will keep the tree from absorbing water. To remedy this, cut about a quarter of an inch off the bottom. This fresh cut will allow the tree to absorb water. It's important to keep live trees well watered. A cut tree can dry out in a few days and become a real fire hazard."

A spokesperson for the U.S. Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, Md., says, "A wet tree is a safe tree." When buying a live tree consumers should pick a tree with a strong green color and noticeable fragrance. Trees with high moisture content are safer and very few needles will fall off.

Kline said it is important to inspect Christmas tree light strings every year before putting them on a tree. Light sets with wires that are frayed or have cracked or worn insulation must be discarded.

"Newer light sets have 'twinkle lights' or very small but bright bulbs," Kline said. "These bulbs barely get warm. However, some older light sets use larger bulbs and these can get very warm. They should not be in direct contact with pine needles or other flammable material."

Kline also cautioned that all light sets, extension cords, and other electrical decorations must carry a "UL" (Underwriters Laboratory) label, ensuring that such items meet safety standards.

"Extension cords are UL approved only for certain lengths of cord," he said. "If you connect two or more cords together to make a longer length you are drawing too much amperage and will be likely to cause the cords to overheat. If you need a longer length, use a heavier cord. Also, do not put cords under rugs or across walkways inside or outside. Walking on cords wears down the insulation and creates a fire hazard."

Kline also urged families to make sure smoke detectors and CO Alarms are tested and in working order. Battery-operated alarms should have fresh batteries.

"I strongly urge anyone with a gas furnace or gas appliances to have at least one CO (carbon monoxide detector) alarm" Kline said. "If you don't have any, or don't have an adequate number in your home, such items make an ideal gift to give before Christmas."

Kline said most holiday-related house fires are likely to occur on Christmas Eve and many are due to lighting holiday candles. In some homes lighting bayberry candles is a holiday tradition. He said it's OK to light candles if they are placed in a safe candle holder, however, candles should never be left unattended, even for a few minutes.

In addition to holiday lighting, Kline also cautioned area residents to use care when using auxiliary heat such as kerosene or electric heaters.

"These throw out direct heat and must kept away from furniture, curtains or drapes, or any material that could catch on fire," he said. "Let's have a safe, happy and joyous holiday."

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