published Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Christmas tree fires rare but destructive

PREVENTION TIPS


• When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, needles are hard to pull from branches and needles do not break. The trunk butt of a fresh tree should be sticky with resin.

• When setting up a tree at home, place it away from fireplaces and radiators. Keep the tree stand filled with water.

• Never use lighted candles on a tree or near other evergreens.

• Use only lights with fused plugs. Check each set of lights, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires or loose connections.

Source: Chattanooga Fire Department

Sitting on Norma O'Neal's table is a small artificial Christmas tree, barely over a foot tall.

It's the first Christmas tree she's been able to put in her small rental house since her East Brainerd home burned down two years ago, the fire fueled by the tree in her family's living room.

"Christmas is so hard now," the 76-year-old O'Neal explains through tears. "We only lost material goods, but we lived there 42 years. That's 42 years of memories and hard work."

Christmas tree fires are rare, but especially destructive when they do occur, according to a study released last month by the National Fire Prevention Association.

Each year between 2005 and 2009, the study reported, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 240 home fires that ignited from Christmas trees -- natural and artificial.

These fires caused an average each year of 13 deaths, 27 injuries and $16.7 million in direct property damage, according to the study.

The O'Neals' fire is the only Christmas tree-related blaze in Chattanooga in five years, fire department spokesman Bruce Garner said.

In the winter, fires are more frequently caused by heating appliances and faulty electrical wiring as more people use alternative heat sources while struggling to stay warm, Garner said.

"We're fortunate we haven't had many Christmas tree fires," Garner said. "When they do catch fire, it can be catastrophic. It generates an incredible amount of heat and flames in seconds. Each dried-out needle is like fuel."

Garner said the blaze ignited from a Christmas tree can spike to 900 degrees in two minutes.

Statistically, Christmas tree fires are more deadly than other fires.

On average, a death resulted from one of every 18 reported home Christmas tree fires, compared with one per 141 total reported home structure fires, the National Fire Protection Association study showed.

December '09 blaze

O'Neal never considered that the handsome 7-foot-tall noble fir she picked out at Home Depot in December 2009 could become a firebomb.

The family set up the tree in the living room that night and strung the lights. They planned to decorate it over the weekend.

The next afternoon her son called her at work, screaming that a fire had broken out in the living room.

The Chattanooga Fire Department contained and extinguished the fire, but late that night the blaze rekindled in the house's walls. This time the fire destroyed the home.

"We didn't get anything out," said O'Neal. "We had our pajamas to stay at a motel that night, but that was it."

Nationwide Insurance, the O'Neals' insurance provider, investigated and declared that there was evidence someone in the home set the fire intentionally. The company refused to pay for any damage.

O'Neal sued Nationwide in Hamilton County Circuit Court. The O'Neals hired an independent fire investigator, who traced the source of the fire to the extension cord where the Christmas tree lights were plugged in.

In November, a jury ordered Nationwide to pay O'Neal $784,676 for dwelling replacement, living expenses and a penalty for acting in bad faith. Earlier this week, USA Today interviewed O'Neal for a forthcoming article about Christmas tree fires.

But O'Neal said she still doesn't have any sense of closure, and has yet to receive a dime of the compensation from Nationwide, which filed for a new trial in Circuit Court last week.

The fire-gutted structure still stands at 1706 Estrallita Circle, but the O'Neals can't rebuild without funds.

O'Neal and her family have lived in five places -- including motels -- in the last two years, and have only possessions donated to them by friends.

"I can't buy anything, but I don't want to ask for anything," she said. "It has been a terrible ordeal."

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