Deputy Fire Chief Michael Ralls on fire safety over the holidays

According to Michael Ralls, the department’s fire-prevention officer, most fires around the holidays are caused by cooking and smoking. Debbie Hovanasian photo

DRACUT — “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree; how lovely are thy branches.”

A great song for tree trimming, but there was a time when Christmas trees and lights, if used inappropriately, caused a significant number of residential fires. Times have changed for the better with more informed consumers and higher quality, safer products — from trees to lights, candles to space heaters.

However, caution still must be exercised to prevent tragedies. Dracut Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael Ralls knows plenty about fire safety and prevention. He recently shared some tips on celebrating Christmas and enjoying wintertime fun in a way that keeps everyone safe.

Q: What’s the number one cause of house fires this time of year?

A: It’s not trees because today there are a lot of artificial, pre-lit trees, and those are very safe. Cooking was the leading cause of residential fires (based on 2009 Massachusetts statistics) and smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths. With smoking, people will fall asleep while smoking in bed or on the couch, which is why it’s the leading cause of deaths due to fire. With cooking, there’s so much going on in people’s lives this time of year that they are not paying attention. They’re distracted by the kids or they go in another room, they’re tired and fall asleep and forget they are cooking. You need to stay in the kitchen and monitor the stove, especially the stovetop. The oven isn’t as bad.

Q: What about fireplace safety?

A: That’s very important this time of year, especially to prevent chimney fires. People will roll up wrapping paper into a ball and throw it in the fireplace. It floats up and can get caught in the brick and mortar style chimneys; so you should never put wrapping paper in the fireplace. Paper, including newspaper, should always be cut into strips first. People also need to be careful where they dispose of ashes because they can smolder for days. Some will put them in cardboard or paper, but they should be in a metal barrel or outside on the ground. The ground is cold and there’s often snow, so it won’t catch fire this time of year.

Q: How long are natural greens, like the tree or garland, safe in a house?

A: With a real tree, it’s very important to keep it watered. If the water dries out, then the tree dies. When the needles start to fall off, especially if they are falling off on their own, it needs to be removed. Natural garlands don’t need watering so they are not a big problem. Whether the tree is real or artificial, it’s very important that when leaving the house, always turn the tree lights off.

Q: What should people have in the house in terms of extinguishers?

A: Always have one that is rated ABC. The A covers paper and wood; the B covers flammable and combustible liquids and C takes care of electrical equipment (appliances, wiring, circuit breakers and outlets). You should have one in the kitchen area, not hidden away in a cabinet and not near the stove. Have it out in the open where someone visiting can find it. In public buildings, we always have one by the doorway so if there is a fire, the person can get right out. If you have a garage, workshop or basement, there should be one there, too. Most extinguishes have gauges, even the cheaper ones, and you should check the gauge often. If it’s out of the green area, it needs a recharge.

Q: Are candles a major cause of fires?

A: Candle fires have gone down. In 2001 there were 299 fires from candles in Massachusetts. In 2010, there were 144. People are now more educated about them, though there was a big problem when they were first out. Today, candles, like Yankee Candle that are in wide glass jars, are hard to tip over. Those are pretty safe if used properly. But if you have pets, you should not use candles. We’ve had a number of fires caused by cats knocking over the candles. Always keep a 3-foot circle around the candle, away from walls and fabrics. Look for American-made candles, which have white wicks versus those from overseas that have a gray wick; we’ve heard the gray wicks can produce arsenic. Many people are using the battery-operated candles today; those have improved over the years and are very safe.

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More safety suggestions

Keep trees away from heat; use only fire-retardant decorations.

Artificial trees should have a fire-retardant label. Purchase lights and electric decorations with approved testing such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

Never overload outlets (no more than three strands of lights on a single extension cord).

Never hang lights on a metallic tree.

Use appropriate weatherproof lights outdoors.

Don’t burn candles all the way down.

Never use a candle if oxygen is used in the home. Never use candles during power outages and blow out all candles when you leave the room.

No one can declare ice for skating to be absolutely safe; ice on moving water in rivers, streams and brooks is never safe. the Dracut Fire Department will never declare ice safe and recommends skating only on rinks.

Never leave a car running in a garage.

Never leave a child or pet in a car with the motor running.

Never sleep in a car with the motor running.

If a heater in your house has a vent to the outside, the vent can get blocked by snow on the ground; always check the vents to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

Put carbon-monoxide detectors in your home (mandatory).

Check batteries on smoke detectors frequently; if you need a space heater, most of today’s space heaters are safe, especially infrared styles like Eden Pure Heaters.