House fires this time of year are typically caused by live Christmas trees, candles, and other holiday decorations.

The New Jersey Division of Fire Safety is urging residents to follow these safety tips and use common sense when decorating.

NJDFS director and state fire marshal Richard Mikutsky said having working smoke detectors in the home is the most effective defense against holiday house fires. He said the detectors will give homeowners advanced warning of any smoke or any fire during its early stages, allowing them to get out of the house.


What are the common sources of holiday house fires?

Christmas trees: Mikutsky said to make sure the tree is fresh and live when it's first bought. Water it daily because when the trees dry out, they can become a tinder box. Keep the tree away from any heat source and dispose of it at the first sign of dryness.

Between 2015 and 2019, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 160 home fires that started with Christmas trees per year, said Mikutsky. Electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in almost half of the home Christmas tree fires. Nearly one in five Christmas tree fires were started by decorative lights.


Candles: Use battery-operated candles, which have all the essentials of a live candle but without the risk of an open flame. Do not leave candles unattended. Keep them in one location and make sure when the candle is extinguished, use a metal candlesnuffer. Blowing out a candle may send a hot ember to a flammable surface.

Between 2015 and 2019, fire departments responded to an average of 7,400 home fires that were started by candles. Christmas is the peak day for candle fires with roughly 2.5 times the daily average.

NJ Christmas tree lighting and holiday events 2016

Holiday decorations: Mikutsky said to use decorations that are flame retardant and non-flammable. Check the lights for frayed wires or excessive wear. Don't link more than three strands of holiday lights because he said that can overload the circuit. Use lights that have the label of a recognized testing laboratory. Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use. Never use lit candles to decorate the tree and always turn the Christmas tree lights off when going out or going to bed.

Never run extension cords through the home. Mikutsky said many people don't want the cords showing so they'll hide them under carpets. The cords can overheat, cause a short and catch the carpeting on fire.

Projectors produce heat from bulbs. So he said to make sure there is open space around them. Projectors that provide displays from a single source rather than heat-producing lights can serve as a safe alternative to traditional decorative lighting.

Christmas decoration stocking and toys hanging over rustic wooden background

"Everyone hangs their stockings by the chimney with care," Mikutsky quipped. But make sure the stockings are not too close to the fire. Keep a safe distance between anything flammable and things like a bulb or an open flame.

Space heaters: As it turns colder, many people may decide to bring a space heater into the home for extra warmth. Mikutsky said to be sure to look for an independent lab label such as UL, which sets minimum safety standards to manufacture. Stay away from kerosene space heaters that can produce carbon monoxide fumes.

Enforce the "3 Foot Rule" with young children. Keep them at least 3 feet away from space heaters. But Mikutsky said that really goes for anything flammable too including, curtains, bedding, and clothing.

Plug space heaters directly into wall outlets. Never use a household extension cord. They can heat up with the possibility for a fire there, he added.

U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 790 home structure fires per year that began with decorations, excluding Christmas trees, between 2015 and 2019. Year-round, more than one-third of home decoration fires were started by candles. Cooking started 19% of decoration fires, 12% involved electrical distribution and lighting equipment. Candles caused 45% of home decoration fires in December alone.

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