Christmas Trees and Fire Safety


Significant concern exists in our society about the fire hazard potential represented by natural Christmas trees. Of the total number of residential fires which occur each year, Christmas trees represent the first ignited fuel source in slightly less than 1 out of every 1000 fires. While it is universally understood that a dry Christmas tree represents a potential fire hazard, it is not as commonly accepted that a properly maintained Christmas tree does not represent a significant fire hazard.

In many states both state and local regulations prohibit the use of natural Christmas trees in various publicly owned buildings. Some regulations permit natural tree use if trees have been treated with approved fire retardant products.

Several studies have been conducted to investigate different aspects of Christmas tree freshness. Results indicate harvested trees can be handled to maintain high internal moisture content, and furthermore Christmas trees which have the base re-cut before display, and which are kept in a water filled stand will maintain freshness. Foliage on these trees is resistant to ignition from those sources most likely to be present in residences. Resistance to ignition is conditioned on the moisture content of the tree remaining high as a result of continued water absorption during display.

It has also been demonstrated it is highly unlikely electrical malfunctions such as a short in a Christmas tree light set, overheated cords, or short-circuited electrical plugs will result in ignition of a natural Christmas tree displayed in a maintained, water filled stand. Results from several research studies support the statement that natural Christmas trees become significant fire hazards only when proper care including regular watering is not provided by the user. Christmas trees can become involved in residential fires when they become dry as a result of human neglect. No documentation indicates a natural Christmas tree ever self ignited and was responsible for starting a residential fire.

Some summary observations regarding natural Christmas trees and fire concerns include:

  1. Of the 446,000 residential fires which occur each year, Christmas trees are involved in fewer than 500 fires.
  2. Cooking and heating related fires are responsible for nearly 39 percent of all residential fires.
  3. A residential fire is more likely to be ignited by the following causes as opposed to a Christmas tree:
    • Electrical distribution system: 79 times more likely than an ignited Christmas tree;
    • Appliances, tools or air conditioning systems: 61 times more likely than an ignited Christmas tree;
    • Smoking materials: 48 times more likely than an ignited Christmas tree;
    • Children playing: 44 times more likely than an ignited Christmas tree; and
    • Candles: 14 times more likely than an ignited Christmas tree.
  4. The following items are more likely to be the first ignited substance in a residential fire than a Christmas tree:
    • newspapers and magazines: 13 times more likely;
    • boxes or bags: approximately 10 times more likely;
    • curtains or drapes: approximately 9 times more likely;
    • linens: approximately 8 times more likely;
    • cleaning supplies: approximately 3 times more likely; and
    • clothing on a person: nearly 2 times more likely.
  5. At the time of harvest on a weight basis Christmas trees contain more water than dry matter 110 to 130 percent (oven dry weight basis).
  6. Moisture loss following harvest is more related to storage conditions than date of harvest.
  7. Christmas trees can lose up to approximately 50 percent of their moisture content yet will still recover and remain fire resistant if properly displayed in a water filled container.
  8. The foliage moisture content of properly displayed trees can be up to 20 percent greater than the moisture content at the time of harvest (125 to 150 percent).
  9. Properly maintained Christmas trees will maintain foliage moisture contents in excess of 100 percent during a 3 to 4 week display period.
  10. Foliage of Christmas trees will not support flame unless the moisture content has fallen to values of 50 to 65 percent (varies by species).
  11. A properly maintained Christmas tree cannot be ignited by electrical ignition sources commonly considered as most probable causes.
  12. There is no documented evidence that a natural Christmas tree ever self ignited.
  13. Christmas trees become fire hazards when they becomes dry as a result of human neglect.

In addition, the Michigan SNOWFRESH Committee has prepared four color posters regarding the environmental benefits of Christmas trees that are appropriate for classrooms and other group settings. These can be obtained by contacting the MCTA office at 1 800 589 TREE.

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