Article

In this article, the fire investigators at Robson Forensic discuss two holiday fires to which they personally responded. Our fire safety experts also provide some essential advice on what you can do to help prevent fires where you live and work.

AVOIDING HOLIDAY HAZARDS

Around the holidays many people take time to decorate homes and make them look festive, but have they taken time to be cautious of those simple fire hazards that may go unnoticed?

The experts at Robson Forensic have investigated thousands of fire incidents, and it’s always heartbreaking to see someone lose their home or suffer fire damage during the holiday season.

Residential Fire – Combustibles near Fireplace

A few years ago, one of our investigators received a call around 2 AM for a house fire. As they arrived on scene, they found fire showing from the front of the house and already self-ventilating through the roof. Thankfully all the occupants had escaped the home uninjured; however, their house fire resulted in a devastating loss for the family. As they investigated the cause of this fire, it was discovered that the family had many combustibles near their fireplace. The mantel was fully decorated with tinsel, stockings, gifts, other holiday decorations, and even the Christmas tree was located just to the right of the fireplace. The homeowners had decided to enjoy a cozy fire that evening, fell asleep in the living room, and unfortunately a few sparks found their way onto the decorations which started the blaze.

As inviting as it is to have a fire going during this time of year, it is important to be mindful of the placement of items on your mantel and surrounding your fireplace. There should be proper clearance from all combustibles, furniture, throw rugs, etc.

Commercial Fire – Overloaded Power Strips

Decorations that may normally be utilized in a residential setting may not be suitable for a commercial or multi-unit housing facility.

A major fire loss incident that our investigators responded to, which also involved holiday decorations, was in a nine story highrise (predominately elderly) apartment building with smoke emitting from the first floor. The main entrance, which also housed the elevators for the upper floors, had an open common area with hallways protruding both left and right that housed individual apartments, a laundry room, and a community common space along with a few offices. In the holiday spirit, the entire area was saturated with decorations, many of which required electricity. Due to the layout of the area and the volume of decorations there were extension cords and power strips in use.

A common myth assumes that if there is an available plug in a power strip, the strip can support additional load. However, every power strip, cord, and electrical device has a cap or limit on the wattage or volume of electricity that it can support. Be sure to read the directions, especially when using an electric heater. Never overload a power strip.

In this particular case there was an artificial Christmas tree in the center of the common lobby area that was powered through a power strip and connected to an extension cord. The power strip heated to the point where the artificial tree began to combust and eventually free burn. Compounding the issue was the fact that this all occurred during the early morning hours in an unoccupied portion of the building; therefore the fire went unnoticed until it had escalated and the smoke emitted into the hallway, reaching the detection system and activating the alarm.

In addition to ensuring that electrical devices are not overloaded, and are properly connected, it is also recommended to turn off decorations and devices during sleeping hours. This helps to prevent excessive heat build-up and also reduces the possibility of a fire starting and going unnoticed for a considerable amount of time, as occurred in this particular case.

A Few Safety Tips to Avoid Holiday Fire Hazards:

  • Never leave burning candles unattended. Use candles with care.
  • Do not overload power strips, extension cords, or electrical outlets.
  • Do not run extension cords underneath carpets.
  • Consider using LED Christmas lights as they are generate less heat.
  • Have an escape plan prepared.
  • Check smoke detectors.
  • If using a live tree, keep it watered.
  • Be sure your fireplace is covered with a metal screen or glass doors to prevent the spread of sparks or fire.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in your home and know how to use it.
  • Always turn off your Christmas lights when leaving your home, or before going to bed.
  • Use care with space heaters, and keep at least three feet of clear space around them.

Fire & Explosion Investigations

The certified fire investigators at Robson Forensic have the necessary training, education, and experience to perform a thorough and efficient origin and cause investigation. In complex situations our investigators have immediate access to our engineers, architects, and scientists, should our clients choose to advance an investigation into a relevant technical field.

For more information visit our Fire & Explosion practice page.

 

Featured Expert

Timothy M. Wilhelm, C.F.E.I., C.V.F.I.

Fire Origin & Cause Expert

As an expert in fire investigations and fire department operations, Tim brings more than thirty years of experience with the City of Erie Fire Department, nearly twenty seven years as a firefighter and another six years as Fire Inspector and Fire Prevention Specialist for the City of Erie. He conducts investigations to locate origin and make initial determination of cause. He also provides technical support to resolve questions related to fire department operations and personnel.