Candles, Holidays, and Fire Safety
Don’t underestimate the need to teach candle safety this holiday season.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2008
Brian Clingenpeel has no trouble recalling one of his most frightening experiences as pastor of a Baptist church in Roanoke, Virginia. One year, church members decided they wanted to host a "Christmas Eve Birthday Party for Jesus." They constructed a 5-tier "cake" 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide and 3 feet (1 meter) high made of plywood covered in aluminum foil. Holes were drilled through each layer to accommodate 180 altar candles. One by one, members of the congregation went up to the cake to light a candle. Church volunteers were stationed by the cake to rotate it on its turntable base to keep members from reaching over candles already lit. Clingenpeel says the plan sounded fine before the ceremony, but it didn’t work out as expected.
"We had such a rush of people up there that we couldn’t keep up. So people reached across it anyway," he says. "We moved some fire extinguishers closer in case we had a problem.You’re thinking that you should have considered this. But once the service is going on, it’s really hard to stop."
Candles used during Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other holiday celebrations can be a beautiful way to express the symbolism and significance of an observance. But as we enter the holiday season, candle users sometimes need a reminder that everyday safety messages still apply during the holiday season, as well.
According to NFPA’s 2007 Home Candle Fire report, an average of 16,000 home structure fires per year started by candles were reported to local fire departments from 2002 to 2005, with associated losses of 160 deaths, 1,490 injuries, and $486 million in property damage per year. And according to NFPA’s 2007 report on U.S. Structure Fires in Religious and Funeral Properties, firefighters responded to 70 structure fires per year started by candles in religious and funeral properties from 2000 to 2004, with associated damages of $6 million per year.
December is the peak time of the year for candle fires in places of worship and in the home. A concern for Cary Thompson, a firefighter and public educator for the Royal Oak, Michigan, Fire Department, is the candles that families light at home on the mantle above the hanging Christmas stockings.
"The stockings can catch fire," Thompson says. "But people think they are fireproof. We tell them that if they’re using candles on the mantel, remove the stockings."
In Roseburg, Oregon, Fire Marshal Tony DiMare fields phone calls from places of worship conducting holiday theatrical productions with children walking down the aisles with lit candles.
"They’re disappointed when we tell them we don’t allow that," he says. But what worries him most are the groups that don’t call him.
A number of fire departments require places of public assembly that use candles to buy a candle permit. The annual fee in Roanoke County is $25.
"It gives us a chance to educate them on the dangers of fire and the fire code, and to make sure that what they’re doing is safe," Clingenpeel says. "Since the permit is for a year, we talk to them about Easter, Christmas, and use on Sundays."
He says church inspections give the fire marshal’s office an opportunity to tell church leaders about the permit, but because of staffing and budgetary restrictions, not all places of worship using candles are told about the regulation.
Clingenpeel is now the public education specialist for Roanoke County Fire and Rescue. He says that the Christmas party, which concluded without incident, motivated him and the other church leaders to examine their candle-lighting ceremonies.
Thompson says that a number of other places of worship in Royal Oak, are also making the switch.
Lisa Braxton is project manager for NFPA’s Public Education Division.