Each year, firefighters in the United States respond to approximately 200 Christmas tree fires—with an estimated one in 52 of these fires resulting in death. From overloaded extension cords and damaged lights to dried-out branches, firefighters know all too well that both real and artificial trees are susceptible to these fires. This is part of the larger trend of an uptick in fire calls during the holiday season.
Christmas tree fires are particularly devastating. And while technology and training to prevent these fires has come a long way over the years, Christmas tree fires are still a very real problem that firefighters need to be prepared for each holiday season, mentally and emotionally. Here is how fire chiefs can prepare their staff, students and the community for the Christmas tree fire season.
Christmas Trees and Fire Dynamics: Hands-On Training
In recent years, hands-on training has been used more than ever to help firefighters and the public better understand what happens when a Christmas tree catches on fire. Some fire departments hold public demonstrations, where real and artificial trees are set ablaze to show just how quickly these fires can spread and how much heat/smoke they generate. Studies have shown, for example, that real trees can become fully engulfed in less than 10 seconds—and that flashover can occur within just 70 seconds.
Isaac Leventon, a doctoral candidate working with the Department of Fire Protection Engineering (FPE), studies flame spread and holds Christmas tree fire demonstrations to educate the public and other firefighters in training. He uses these demos to educate students on important skills, including how to calculate peak burning rate, maximum heat release, burning duration, and more. This kind of training provides valuable insights to students, showing them firsthand how dangerous these fires can be.
Preventing Christmas Tree Fires
Efforts to educate the public on the dangers of Christmas tree fires have come a long way. In fact, studies have shown that instances of these fires have dropped significantly since 1980, when the United States saw an average of nearly 850 Christmas tree fires each year (that's more than four times the number seen today).
In addition to widespread fire education, technology has also come a long way in reducing instances of these holiday fires. Many artificial trees, for example, are now made with flame-resistant materials. Meanwhile, LED Christmas lights generate significantly less heat than traditional lighting.
In recent years, other innovations (including built-in fire extinguishers and fire alarms) have also shown a lot of promise when it comes to making Christmas trees safer. The idea of a built-in extinguisher is especially notable because, as Leventon explains, "fire extinguishers really just should not be used on Christmas trees. They pose an inherent risk by forcing you to get very close to the fire."
Overall, humanity has come a long way since the days of lighting candles on trees; the dangers of Christmas tree fires and how to prevent them are generally well understood—but this doesn't mean that there isn't still work to be done.
Preparing Students Mentally and Emotionally
Aside from teaching how to fight Christmas tree fires and preparing students for investigations related to these fires, instructors and educators also have an important responsibility to prepare these students mentally and emotionally each holiday season. This is an especially stressful time for many firefighters and first responders—especially those responding to calls about Christmas tree fires, cooking fires, car accidents, and similar incidents.
Unfortunately, it is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop conditions related to depression and post-traumatic stress. This only underscores the importance of mental health training for firefighters, which can help them better manage and cope with traumatic situations. Ongoing mental health training for first responders should focus on empowering students to recognize the signs of mental health issues and knowing which resources are immediately available to them. Likewise, mental health training should help first responders support and encourage each other as much as possible.
Dena Ali, Battalion Chief of the City of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Fire Department, says "As we know, mental health is vast and impacts all of us at some point or another. Responding to fires during the holidays is especially challenging because the holiday season is typically such a happy time, so it’s particularly devastating to see something that’s supposed to be so joyous turn so tragic.”
She continues, “Recommendations for dealing with the trauma of Christmas tree fires should take place long before our response to such incidents. We must always seek to build resilience among our responders. This can be done through everyday holistic practices such as daily expressions of gratitude, journaling, making time for family, and ensuring you have a strong support network. By building a robust support and resiliency practice ahead of an incident, our responders can build the emotional bandwidth to manage these difficult incidents."
The Bottom Line on Training for Christmas Tree Fires
More than ever, fire instructors and educators have an important responsibility to prepare students both physically and mentally for Christmas tree fires and other common holiday catastrophes. Through the use of live demonstrations and proper supporting materials, firefighters can be prepared and empowered to do their jobs. Likewise, continuing efforts to educate the public on Christmas tree fire prevention and new innovations may eventually help put an end to Christmas fires for good.
For fire instructors looking for material on fire behavior and combustion to support Christmas tree fire education, Public Safety Group's Principles of Fire Behavior and Combustion (Fourth Edition)is an excellent resource. This textbook is based on the National Fire Academy's Fire Behavior and Combustion model curriculum, offering a reader-friendly style to simplify complex subject matter and plenty of practice problems incorporated within the text. Likewise, every print copy comes with a complete eBook, study center, and homework/assessment center to help students and instructors get the most out of the text.