Pick a perfect, safe Christmas tree

Forestry expert explains easy tests to help you buy the safest one


Picking a Christmas tree isn't easy.  There are so many to choose from and they come in different shapes and sizes.  But safety is key, and you have to make sure the tree you bring home won't go up in flames.

"A tree that has good moisture content is not very flammable. They really are not a fire hazard," said Kansas State University Forestry Expert Charles Barden.

Whether you buy locally, from a major retailer or cut it down yourself, the most important thing to look for in your perfect Christmas tree is moisture.

barden says a heavy tree is a good sign it's got a lot of water in it.  Another way to check before buying is to drop the tree onto the ground.  If yellow needles fall out that's okay, but if green needles fall out, that's a bad sign.

Also check the needles for flexibility.  If they bend, that's good, but if they break, that tree is too dry.

Once you pick the right tree, be sure to keep taking special care of it once you get it home.

"I actually keep it in the garage or a cool place overnight with lots of water for it to draw from and that first 24 hours, it may absorb a gallon of water," said Barden.

Keep watering your tree during the holiday season. Barden says it may drink up to a quart of water a day.

The National Fire Protection Association says every year, fire departments respond to an average of 210 structure fires caused by Christmas trees and offers the following advice when you bring your tree home:

Placing the tree

  • Before placing the tree in the stand, cut 1" - 2" from the base of the trunk.
  • Make sure the tree is at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights.
  • Make sure the tree is not blocking an exit.
  • Add water to the tree stand. Be sure to add water daily.

Lighting the tree

  • Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory. Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use, but not both.
  • Replace any string of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections. Connect no more than three strands of mini string sets and a maximum of 50 bulbs for screw-in bulbs. Read manufacturer's instructions for number of LED strands to connect.
  • Never use lit candles to decorate the tree.
  • Always turn off Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed.

After Christmas

  • Get rid of the tree when it begins dropping needles. Dried-out trees are a fire danger and should not be left in the home or garage, or placed outside against the home. Check with your local community to find a recycling program. Bring outdoor electrical lights inside after the holidays to prevent hazards and make them last longer.

According to FEMA, typically, shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters or matches start tree fires. Well-watered trees are not a problem. A dry and neglected tree can be.

This dramatic clip illustrates what happens when fire touches a dry tree and a properly maintained, well-watered tree. Maintained (Wet) Tree: Ignition occurs at 0 seconds; fire at ignition point on tree continues to burn but does not spread at 30 seconds; fire at ignition point on tree continues to burn but does not spread at 1 minute; fire at ignition point on tree did not spread, flames self-extinguish, and tree (trunk, branches, and needles) is fully intact at 1 minute and 30 seconds (end of video).

Dry Tree: Ignition occurs at 0 seconds; other tree branches become involved at 5 seconds; most of the tree is burning at 15 seconds; tree is fully engulfed in flames at 30 seconds; only the tree trunk and portions of some of the larger branches are intact after all the needles have burned away at 1 minute and 30 seconds (end of video).

For more information, including videos to show how quickly a fire can spread in a home, go to www.usfa.fema.gov.