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Christmas tree facts spark interest of OSU researchers

December 8, 2011

By OSU Extension Service

We have all heard the warnings and seen the clips of Christmas trees bursting into flames and ruining someone’s holiday season.
Oklahoma State University foresters have come together to shed some light on the difference between fact and fiction.
“Christmas trees are safe,” said Craig McKinley, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension forestry expert. “A Christmas tree cannot cause a fire any more than your sofa, or your couch, or your waste basket can.”
Oftentimes in the video clip warnings, a “live” tree would have been set aside and dried for over a month before ignited.
“They let the tree lay out in the hot sun for two months before they try to torch it,” said Chuck Tauer, OSU forest genetics professor, and Christmas tree grower. “The truth of the matter is that if you take a fresh cut Virginia pine and you stick it in a stand and in water, you’ll have a heck of a time getting that thing to burn.”
McKinley recalled a PSA on the news in another state several years back in which the news reporter had a Fraser fir and tried to light it with a match. When the tree wouldn’t go up in flames, a small torch was used.
“She couldn’t get the thing lit, and you could see they cut the film, and then ‘wooompf’ they got this flame,” McKinley said. “And then she said, ‘Remember, a small spark such as this could destroy your Christmas’.”
McKinley couldn’t believe his eyes and wanted to clear Christmas trees of any wrong doing.
“It’s real easy for the Fire Marshal to go burn one and show it on TV,” McKinley said. “If you use anything wrong, it’s a danger.”
A very small percentage of the time the tree was the first item ignited, according to McKinley. However, when the rare occasion of a tree catching on fire happens, we will hear about it.
“Christmas time is a time of joy, with lots of presents and people in the house, so it is a human interest story when a house burns,” McKinley said. “TV likes fire.”
These fire stories have slowed in the United States since the use of lit candles on Christmas trees has stopped. That tradition continues in parts of Europe, which has Christmas trees with much more space between branches to allow for that type of decoration.
“We’ve learned that candles on trees are not a good idea, even if they do it in Europe,” McKinley said. “Trees can be a fuel source. So can your sofa, so can your trash can, so can anything else. They don’t cause fires and they are not inherently dangerous.”
Aside from lit candles in Christmas trees, much concern had been raised in the past about how hot the lights on the trees would get. With new regulations on lights, that is no longer a threat.
“The lights these days are not hot anymore,” Tauer said. “That might be why Christmas tree fires are such a concern to people, because they used to be made differently.”
With that said, McKinley did offer a warning about Christmas trees.
“The biggest danger you are going to have with a Christmas tree is getting gouged in the eye with a needle,” he said.
While Christmas trees are safe in the house, if taken care of properly, McKinley advises to be smart about it and use caution about keeping open flames away from trees, and anything else in the house.

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