How to Avoid Burning Down Your House Over the Holidays

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The holiday season is filled with warmth and sparkle. Think candles ablaze, shimmering firelight, trees draped with twinkling lights, glowing ornaments, and a glistening feast fresh from the oven. Unfortunately, the holiday season is also filled with accidental fires — specifically, home fires caused by these same candles, fires, trees, lights, decorations, and feasts.

We heartily wish it were otherwise. But the National Fire Protection Association tells a tremendously sad holiday fire story:

  • Feasts: “Thanksgiving is the peak day for home cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.”
  • Holiday trees:
    • “Between 2013-2017, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 160 home fires that started with Christmas trees per year.”
    • “In one-quarter (25%) of the Christmas tree fires, some type of heat source, such as a candle or equipment, was too close to the tree.”
  • Candles: “On average, 22 home candle fires were reported each day between 2013-2017.”
  • Holiday lights and decorations: “Electrical distribution or lighting equipment was involved in 44% of home Christmas tree fires.”

For many homeowners, coverage for unforeseeable disasters like home fires is one of the primary reasons to buy insurance. While accidental fire damage is covered in most homeowners insurance policies (subject to policy limits and exclusions, like arson), isn’t it better if you don’t have a fire in the first place?

With that in mind, welcome to Covered’s list of the six basic things you can do to ensure a safe, fire-resistant holiday season for your home. We wish you genuinely happy holidays, which naturally start with not accidentally setting your home on fire.

1. Treat Smoke Detectors Like They’re Sacred

Smoke detectors are crucially important tools for protecting your home. They can genuinely smell smoke before you do. Which is why it’s painful to admit that most of us don’t treat smoke detectors as if they’re as important as they are.

You know what we’re talking about. You’ve probably done it. Maybe you’re cooking something on your stovetop, or some overflow from a roast dripped into the bottom of your oven. Your house starts getting smoky, and then your smoke detector starts getting LOUD. It’s off-putting and you want it to stop, so you pull it down from the wall and stick it under a pillow. Maybe you pull out the batteries, and you don’t put it back up on the wall right away. Maybe you don’t remember to put it back up at all.

All this to say, it’s time to start treating your smoke detector as if it’s sacred:

  • Never take it down while you’re cooking. If alarms are going off, smoke levels are unsafe. Cease the cooking, and start working on getting that smoke out of your home. Open windows and doors, and turn on any fans available. Then, fan the smoke detector itself to buy yourself a little quiet while the smoke dissipates.
  • Test it regularly. There’s a little button on it that says “test.” Each month, set a calendar reminder to go press it. If it makes that piercing sound, great. Try to think of it as the sound of reassurance.
  • Replace batteries at least annually, using high-quality batteries. Would you put the cheapest batteries you can buy in a life-support machine?

2. Be Ready with Stuff that Fights Fires

Most people know you can’t fight greasy kitchen fires with water. But if a fire broke out in your kitchen, do you know how you would fight it?

Be ready to fight that fire. Buy a fire extinguisher, and make sure everyone in your home knows how it works. (To review, the technique is P.A.S.S.) Similarly, make sure everyone knows how to deal with cooking fires. Getting a metal lid or cover down can be a good option in less advanced situations, given you’re stopping airflow to the fire. Baking soda can be another good option; keep a box handy near your stove. A fire blanket can be a GREAT solution, if used correctly. As a final option for fighting that fire yourself, use the fire extinguisher. (It will contaminate your kitchen, given the fine powder it releases. But it’s clearly worth it in many situations.)

But please, don’t be a hero. You should only ever try to fight small fires by yourself. If it’s already a big fire, call 911. Your life is worth far more than your kitchen, or even your home.

3. Decorate with LED Lighting

Why LED lighting? It operates at a lower voltage and produces very little heat, making it safer. LEDs also save you money and energy in the long run. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), LEDs last as much as 25 times longer than incandescent lighting while using at least 75% energy. Finally, it’s genuinely safe — again, according to the DOE — to string together up to 25 strings of LED lights in one glorious chain without overloading a wall socket. So, if you go all-LED with your holiday lights, you can feel utterly free to unleash your inner Clark Griswold. Light up the night, without fear of burning down the house!

4. Water Live Holiday Trees Regularly

Live holiday trees are an age-old tradition: the enchanting smell of pine, the festive decorations, the symbolism, the magical memories, the… accidental home fires.

As the statistics in the introduction to this blog reinforce, those live holiday trees are indeed a proven fire hazard. It doesn’t mean you can’t have one. It only means that, if you do, you should take the time to understand the risks and ensure you’re following proper safety precautions. The most important thing to remember? KEEP THAT LIVE TREE WELL-WATERED. Dry holiday trees take mere minutes to spread fire, burning faster than newspaper. Need convincing? This terrifying one-minute video will make sure you never again underestimate the importance of regularly watering your tree.

Bonus holiday tree safety tips:

  • Buy a fresh, healthy tree. Your live tree should be healthy when you buy it, with fresh, pliable needles that don’t break easily. Leave the Charlie Brown trees to Charlie Brown.
  • Use a sturdy tree stand. A tree at risk of tipping over into a lit candle, a fireplace, or even a live outlet is not a recipe for holiday fun.
  • Always unplug lights before bed, or before leaving your home. Even if those pretty light displays are off for several days, your neighbors’ spirits will bounce back.
  • If you’re going to opt for an artificial tree instead, make sure it’s flame-retardant. Be aware that vintage artificial trees, while highly snazzy, may not meet this requirement.

5. Practice Safer Holiday Cooking

Most adults know their way around the kitchen. Regardless, everyone benefits from brushing up on cooking safety. With that in mind, these six simple tips will help you cook more safely this holiday season:

  1. Clean your oven already. We know — it’s not the most enjoyable task. But that layer of old cooking grime at the bottom of your oven isn’t doing anyone any favors. More importantly, it could be exactly the fuel required for your next cooking fire.
  2. Do a safety check of your kitchen. Before you get started with any holiday cooking adventures, take the time to do a thorough safety check. Make adjustments accordingly. For example, move that roll of paper towels far away from that stovetop. Make sure pot holders and oven mitts aren’t stored where they could catch fire. Wooden utensils and food packaging should also be moved away from the stove. Move electrical devices away from possible water exposure.
  3. Keep small kids or drunk people out of the kitchen. Despite their potential amusement factor, they don’t belong in the kitchen while you’re cooking up that holiday dinner. There’s just too much that can go wrong: Knives. Cords. Heating and cooking implements. Hot surfaces. So if Uncle Al has had a little too much holiday punch, it’s time to get him safely out of the kitchen.
  4. Use a timer, dude. This may sound like “no-duh” guidance, but you might be surprised by how many kitchen fires result from someone losing track of cooking time. So, every time something goes in or on the oven/fryer/grill, set a timer to make sure it gets checked and ultimately removed. (FYI Android smartphones can handle as many timers as you can throw at them, and you can label each one. For iPhones, third-party multiple-timer apps are available.)
  5. Ensure hot stoves, grills, and fryers are ALWAYS supervised. Don’t assume all is well. Make sure it is.
  6. Use fryers outdoors. Avoid the oil spattering around your kitchen and the smell that lingers for days. More importantly, avoid the big risk you’re taking in bringing a large vat of hot oil into your home. Finally, if you’re contemplating deep-frying a turkey, understand the very real hazards and follow all recommended safety guidelines.

6. Do a Safety Check After Guests Leave

Designate someone (possibly yourself) to walk around both the inside and outside of your home following any holiday gatherings. The main goal is to make certain things like candles and cigarettes have been safely extinguished, and lights have all been unplugged. Overall, just give everything a thorough look, and get rid of anything that could become a potential hazard.

Now that you’re not going to accidentally burn your house down, how about making sure you understand the ins and outs of the “dwelling” coverage on your homeowners policy? One of Covered’s insurance experts will be happy to do a free policy review. Just give us a call (833) 487-2683 or drop us a line.

Cover Photo by Daniel Tausis on Unsplash