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Avoiding Hazards During the Holidays

Hazard-proofing a home is a never-ending task, but during winter many families use more electricity, heating systems, plugs and outlets—especially for decorative displays featuring electric candles, strings of lights on Christmas trees, and outdoor displays. Every home should have a fire extinguisher, but if you’re concerned about electrical and fire safety, here are some precautions to take:

Pay close attention when buying and hanging outdoor lights. Be careful of overhead power lines, which should be at least 10 feet from where you and the lights you are hanging are located. When stringing lights on trees or branches, make sure they don’t touch or approach outdoor power lines. In addition, check strings of lights for bare or worn wires, and look at manufacturers’ limitations on how many strings of lights can be connected to one another. Finally, never use indoor lights outside.

Pay attention to electrical wiring and power usage. If you have lights that flicker or have to flip circuits or reset fuses frequently, particularly when multiple appliances are in use, your home may not have sufficient power for your electrical consumption. While many small electronics that come out at Christmas (such as candles in windows) don’t draw much power, make a New Year’s resolution to address your underpowered electrical panel. This problem, typically coupled with older wiring, can lead to fires. If your electrical panel doesn’t have at least 100 amps of power, it needs an upgrade. Upgrades typically cost between $800 and $1,200, according to mortgage insurer Freddie Mac.

Be careful with Christmas lights and candles. String Christmas lights on a tree before adding ornaments, and be sure to hang ornaments far from individual lights to prevent lights from catching ornaments (particularly fabric ornaments) on fire. Turn Christmas tree lights off before bed each night, or employ a timer to do so. If you light candles, make sure they are firmly rooted in their holders and always blow them out before retiring for the evening. To avoid the hazard altogether, consider decorating a tree without using lights; strings of cranberry and popcorn are colorful, as are metallic or glass ornaments that reflect other lights in the room.

Maintain smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are only as good as the batteries they contain. Be sure to change batteries in these devices quarterly. At the holidays, as at other times of year, never run fuel-powered appliances indoors in an unventilated area.

Be careful with electrical appliances. Most deaths from fires in private residences result from appliances that weren’t turned off—and the risk of this happening may increase with guests around or children home from school. Curling irons, electric blankets, space heaters (especially if placed too close to furniture or fabric), and irons can all spark fires quickly. Dryers can overheat if their timing mechanism is faulty, or if lint screens haven’t been kept clean. If possible, unplug appliances when they’re not in use.

Keep an eye on the stovetop. Creating a homey scent with hot cider or stovetop potpourri kits can make a home smell pleasant at the holidays, but keep in mind that unattended pots and pans left too long on stovetops can lead to fires, as can kettles that boil until dry.

Keep kids away from fire. Children playing with matches and lighters are responsible for many fires in homes. If candles and the fireplace are part of how you set the holiday mood, be sure to keep matches and lighters in hard-to-reach locations to prevent curious hands from causing trouble. Alternatively, only light them at adult-only parties or once the children are asleep.

Keep the fireplace clean and put out embers before bed. Holiday fires can be beautiful – when contained in a fireplace or woodstove. If you light fires frequently during the holidays, make sure embers are out and that there’s no risk of burning ashes lighting anything near the fireplace.

Send smokers outside. The National Fire Protection Association reports that an estimated one in four fire-related deaths is due to smoking materials (cigarettes, cigars, or pipes). If you or your guests smoke, identify a specific space in the house (preferably outdoors) where your holiday guests who smoke can enjoy their pastime. But emphasize that no smoking is to take place in bedrooms, and that smokers should carefully extinguish cigarettes when done with them.

If you pay attention to these tips not just during the holidays but year-round, you’ll significantly reduce the risk of fires and other hazards in the home. By monitoring your use of electricity and electrical appliances, and using common sense when fires are burning bright, your home can be a warm sanctuary.