The Great Neck Fire Department was among the companies present when a living room, complete with gifts under the decorated tree, turned into a roaring inferno that enveloped the Cape-style home in a matter of minutes.
While usually springing into action to save lives and property, in the case, the firefighters just stood by, taking it all in.
This was part of a training exercise at the Nassau County Fire Academy in Bethpage.
The lesson: While there is nothing more beautiful than a real fir tree decked out with lights, ornaments and tinsel, there also is nothing more deadly.
With a short from an electrical circuit, the fresh Christmas tree started to smolder. Within seconds, it ignited, falling onto the couch. Minutes later, the entire living room was burning down to the studs—nothing left but ashes.
On average, one of every 40 reported home fires that began with a Christmas tree resulted in death, compared to one death for every 142 home fires, according to county fire officials, and electrical problems were factors in one third of Christmas tree fires.
The demonstration marked the inaugural burn of two mocked-up homes at the training center.
John Murray, chief instructor of the Nassau County Firefighters Museum and Education Center, standing before the burned-out house, offered tips on preventing such disasters.
“Use fresh-cut trees, as fresh as possible,” he said. “Shake the tree, bounce it on the ground, and run your hand along the needles, making sure they do not fall off excessively. If they do, don’t buy it.”
Cut a few inches off the bottom, and if you are not going to put it in the house right away, soak the trunk in a pail of water outside, protected from snow and ice.
“Use ‘Prolong,’ a wetting agent that you can get at any garden or box store,” Murray said. “It helps take the water up in the tree and it preserves it longer.”
In the house, don’t place the tree near heating units, fireplaces, staircases or points of egress, he said. After all, if the worst happens, you want to be able to get out.
“The tree should be hydrated every day, and check to make sure the water is being taken up by the tree,” Murray said. “The tree shouldn’t be in the house for more than one and a half weeks.”
As for lights, Murray stressed the importance insuring that they are properly working and the wires aren’t frayed. Any issues, throw them out and buy new.
“It should say UL-rated on the box,” he said. “Don’t buy the cheapest ones you can. Your family’s safety is not worth saving a few dollars.”
He also warned against overloading outlets, and said the rule of thumb is one plug in one outlet. Turn the tree lights off at night, unplugging them before heading to bed or leaving the house.
“Have working smoke detectors on every level of the house,” he said. “If one goes off, leave the house immediately and call the fire department from outside the house.”
The museum’s website—www.NCFireMuseum.org—has more information on fire safety.