Fires don’t just start in the woods: How to safely light your house for the holidays

Tips on being festive and fire-smart.

The holidays are almost here, and the urge to start decorating is stronger than ever (if you haven’t already!) But before you pull your trusty window decor and festive lights out of storage, taking a few moments to consider the safest ways to show your holiday spirit can help keep the joy alive all season long.

Fires don’t just start in the woods.

We often think of fire safety as “outside-in,” and a lot of energy goes into keeping flames from reaching our homes and embers from getting inside. But we should also keep in mind that homes can be fire sources as well. Even a small fire started in your home or on your property can easily grow into a sad story on the nightly news, and the risk of such fires gets higher around the holidays. Warmth and a warm glow are wonderful, but achieving them safely is crucial. And no matter what, always have a plan to get out.

So don your favorite sweater and get your holiday playlist going, but keep these important safety measures in mind as you get your home ready for the season:

1. Light candles without burning any.

Window candles look great—real Thomas Kinkaid stuff—but don’t let a love for authenticity lead to bad decisions. Electric candles have come a long way, and they can provide a nice, flickering look without posing a risk to nearby fabrics or flammable carpets. Real candles, especially when left unattended, aren’t just fire risks—they’re dangerous to curious children and energetic pets, as well.

And please, don’t try for an olden-times Christmas by putting candles on your tree. Natural trees can go up like dry kindling when touched by flames. And while artificial trees tend to be made of fire-retardant materials, they’re designed to protect against electricity, not open flames, and can definitely still catch fire.

2. Enjoy chestnuts, just not over an open fire.

You already know how careful we need to be about embers. Embers from a fire can travel miles from an initial fire source, but embers from a fireplace—a source generating them in large numbers—don’t have to travel far at all. Be sure you have a secure fireplace grill and sufficient mesh (with 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch openings) covering your chimney to keep embers contained. An ember reaching your interior furniture, your roof, or your landscaping can be disastrous.

3. Don’t get all Griswold with your lights. 

Remember the house-lights scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Perfect lesson in what not to do during the holidays. Consider playing “Count the Fire Risks” next time you watch it. By all means, decorate your home with lights—just do it carefully.

For instance, don’t hang or install anything until you understand just how much demand your home’s electrical service can safely handle. We also strongly recommend restricting outdoor lights to only your house; avoid stringing them on shrubs and trees, where an electrical mishap can put sparks and heat in direct contact with combustible foliage. When stringing lights on your home, use plastic clips to secure them rather than nails that can pierce your wires, creating a fire risk. And finally, be sure to only use lights made specifically for the outdoors.

4. Another thing about electricity.

Whether you’re setting up lights inside or outside, always use grounded plugs and receptacles, and never overload a receptacle with numerous devices. Plugging several extension cords or light strings into a single wall outlet leads to overloaded outlets, and electrical fires due to overloaded outlets are all too common.

The holidays are a time for joy and celebration, so don’t let fire get in the way of it this (or any) season