Christmas Tree Fire Codes Cause Confusion

By: Jarrod Aldom
By: Jarrod Aldom

Many people are confused about the new fire codes prohibiting live Christmas trees. But WHSV found out it's not as complicated as it sounds.

The fire code was adopted in October. It states that certain places cannot have a live Christmas tree if they don't have an automatic sprinkler system. But a few weeks agao, state fire marshals turned over enforcement to local fire marshals. And the state lifted the ban on trees in apartments and condos in their jurisdiction.

Of the places here, only Augusta County refers complaints to the state fire marshal. So everywhere else, the live tree ban in apartments and condos is still in effect.

"We have to enforce the code as it is adopted based on what we understand at this point," says John Huddle, the Assistant Fire Marshal in Rockingham County. "And as we understand it, the code has been adopted with that restriction in place."

All the places we talked to said the codes would be very hard to enforce.

"We don't have the manpower to go out there and be the Christmas tree police," says Huddle. "We're not going out actively looking for people carrying live trees into their apartment buildings."

But fire marshals all agree you should follow the code, if only you save you from legal troubles.

"If I have a tree that's in violation of the state-wide fire prevention code that's a criminal act," explains Huddle. "If a fire should results from that any insurance that I have that should cover the law is going to be void."

It's a class one misdemeanor to have an illegal live tree, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

The fire codes do not apply to single-family homes. Extended Web Coverage

Christmas Tree Safety

  • When decorating Christmas trees, always use safe tree lights. (Some lights are designed only for indoor or outdoor use, but not both.) Larger tree lights should also have some type of reflector rather than a bare bulb and all lights should be listed by a testing laboratory.

  • Never use electric lights on a metal tree.

  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions on how to use tree lights. Any string of lights with worn, frayed or broken cords or loose bulb connections should not be used.

  • Always unplug Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to sleep.

  • Never use lit candles to decorate a tree, and place them well away from tree branches.

  • Try to keep live trees as moist as possible by giving them plenty of water daily. Do not purchase a tree that is dry or dropping needles.

  • Choose a sturdy tree stand designed not to tip over.

  • When purchasing an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled as fire-retardant.

  • Children are fascinated with Christmas trees. Keep a watchful eye on them when around the tree and do not let them play with the wiring or lights.

  • Store matches and lighters up high, out of the reach of children, preferably in a locked cabinet.

  • Make sure the tree is at least three feet (one meter) away from any heat source and try to position it near an outlet so that cords are not running long distances. Do not place the tree where it may block exits.

  • Safely dispose of the tree when it begins dropping needles. Dried-out trees are highly flammable and should not be left in a house or garage, or placed against the house.

Christmas Tree Fire Facts

  • In 1998, Christmas trees were the first item ignited in 300 home fires, resulting in 11 injuries and $8 million in direct property damage.

  • The leading cause of Christmas tree fires and property damage was short circuit or ground fault (21 percent). In this category, electrical failure other than short circuit ranked second in number of fires, injuries and property damage with the exception of the "other known" category.

  • Cords and plugs were the leading type of equipment involved in the ignition of Christmas trees

  • Unspecified short circuit arc accounted for an average of more than 100 fires (20 percent), no civilian deaths, 14 civilian injuries, and $3.3 million in direct property damage from 1994-1998.

Source: (National Fire Protection Association Web site) contributed to this report.

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