With the new month upon us, thoughts have shifted from Thanksgiving Day turkey to opening presents on Christmas. Though December typically represents a joyous time spent with friends and family, it also marks the beginning of a three-month period of an increase in structure fires, especially in Alaska.
To bring public awareness to the importance of holiday fire safety, Central Emergency Services initiated its fifth annual "keep the wreath green" program by lighting a wreath at the South Binkley Street fire station in Soldotna on Wednesday.
"It's always been a very successful (program)," said CES Fire Marshal Gary Hale.
Former CES fire chief Jeff Tucker brought the "keep the wreath green" program with him when he moved to Alaska from Florida. The program encourages Kenai Peninsula residents to have a fire safe holiday season and develop fire awareness in regard to decorations.
The wreath will be on display from now until New Year's Day. Citizens can view the wreath throughout the month to monitor the success of the program.
For each fire that occurs within the next month, one of the approximately 50 green lights on the wreath will be replaced with a red light. The goal is to keep each light on the wreath green, representing a fire-free holiday season.
So far, the wreath has two red bulbs as two fires occurred Monday.
The wreath also displays one white light to honor fellow firefighters who have lost their lives. An average of 115 firefighters die each year in the line of duty in the U.S., Hale said.
Skyview High School wood shop and metal shop students built the 4-by-4-foot wreath.
"They really did a beautiful job," Hale said. "The quality of it was beyond my expectations."
As temperatures drop, the reliance on heating systems increases, which also leads to an increase in fires.
"Space heaters need space," Hale said.
Three feet of clearance from combustible materials all the way around the heater is essential. Purchasing space heaters that turn off when the heater tips over will also prevent fires during the winter months.
Christmas lights should be tested by a laboratory. Look for the lab's markings on the lights, such as FM, Factor Mutual, or UL, Underwriters Laboratories, as these are two trusted name brands, Hale said.
Prior to installing Christmas lights, inspect for worn or loose connections. Lights designated for the outdoors should be labeled for outdoor use.
It's important not to overload electrical sockets and to use power strips if plugging in multiple cords. Overloaded sockets can cause circuit breakers to trip. If a breaker continually trips, it can stay in the "open" position and lead to an electrical fire, Hale said.
"Always unplug everything before you leave home or go to bed," he said. "In Alaska with the weather conditions, you never know what your electrical wiring is going to do."
When purchasing a Christmas tree, it's important to buy a fresh one, Hale said. To test its freshness, Hale said pick the tree up and set it down on a hard surface to see how many needles fall off. If several needles come off the tree, keep looking for a different one.
A tree that's less fresh is drier than a fresh one and will burn in a matter of seconds.
"(A dry) tree goes up in probably less than five seconds," Hale said.
The tree should be placed in a large container of water and kept away from heat sources. After bringing the tree home, cut it at an angle as this helps water penetrate better, Hale said.
Christmas trees should be properly disposed after the season. Look for places that advertise the recycling of trees.
Do not cut Christmas trees for use as firewood, Hale said.
Fireplaces should be inspected and cleaned at least once a year.
"During the winter, usually we see an increase in chimney fires," Hale said. A major cause for chimney fires is lack of maintenance, he said.
Candle safety, too, is important over the holidays. Candles should be kept in a non-combustible, solid base made out of materials such as glass, ceramic or metal.
"Never leave a candle unattended in any room," Hale said.
Children and pets should be kept away from the open flame. Matches and lighters should be out of their reach, too.
"This time of year, watch your children," he said.
"Make sure you have working smoke detectors," Hale said. "In today's world, smoke detectors save lives."
Hale also said it's important to have and practice an escape plan.
"People who have a combination of working smoke detectors and an escape plan, you better your chances by 50 percent of surviving a fire," he said.
Mike Nesper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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