Cut Christmas trees

Is that the best place for a Christmas Tree?

It’s the time of year when we’ll start to see Christmas Trees pop up all around. The colorful ornaments and bright lights add flare to almost any room and remind us that the New Year is just around the corner. As a fire inspector, this time of year adds a whole new twist. Christmas Trees, although festive also poses a very dangerous fire hazard. The thin needles spaced just far enough apart are easily ignitable and can lead to rapid fire growth. Christmas Tree fires quickly releases a large amount of energy, placing them among the higher hazards when it comes to contents and furnishings. Natural Cut Christmas Trees can be a more severe hazard than artificial trees, especially when they go without water for even a short period of time. With such a severe fire hazard, it’s no surprise NFPA 1 Fire Code puts limits on both natural cut and artificial Christmas Trees just like it does for mattresses and upholstered furniture.

Considerations for natural cut Christmas trees
When placed inside a building, natural cut trees are required to be fresh cut ½” (13mm) above the end and immediately placed in water, with the water level monitored to ensure it is always above the level of the cut. So how often do you water your Christmas Tree? The answer is as much as necessary to keep the water level constantly above the cut. If the tree shows any signs of dryness, such as brittle needles that easily come off, the tree must be removed. Trees must be located away from heating vents or other heating equipment which may cause the tree to dry out. If fire retardant treatment is applied to natural cut trees it must meet both Test Method 1 and Test Method 2 of ASTM E3082, Standard Test Methods for Determining the Effectiveness of Fire-Retardant Treatments for Natural Christmas Trees. Method 1 involves the use of a detached branch where Method 2 utilizes the whole Christmas Tree to test the effectiveness of the applied fire-retardant treatment.

Christmas tree burn comparison

Even with these provisions natural cut trees are prohibited from in Assembly, Board and Care, Detention and Correctional, Dormitories, Educational and Hotel occupancies. Without automatic fire sprinkler protection, trees are only permitted inside the unit of an apartment building, in an industrial occupancy and in one/two family dwellings. If the building is protected by automatic fire sprinklers additional occupancies can display natural cut trees, and less restrictions are in place if the tree roots are dug up and balled to help the tree survive. Check out the table below from NFPA 1 (2021ed) for the list of permitted locations.

NFPA 1 table for permitted Christmas tree locations

Considerations for artificial Christmas trees
Artificial Christmas Trees also present a fire hazard like natural cut trees as they have thin needles spaced to allow rapid fire growth. Combine that hazard with the high energy release rates of synthetic materials and it warrants special provisions in both NFPA 1 and NFPA 101. Artificial trees must meet test method 1 or test method 2 from NFPA 701, which addresses the flame propagation of textiles, with the goal of limiting flame spread to limit fire growth; or a maximum heat release rate of 100kW when tested to NFPA 289 with a 20kW ignition source, where limiting the heat release rate limits the impact that adding an artificial tree will have on the fire hazard of the contents and furnishings.

General considerations
Regardless of the type of Christmas tree, natural cut, balled or artificial, they cannot be placed such that they obstruct corridors, exit ways, or means of egress.  Additionally, any electrical equipment used must be listed for its application. In all cases no candles or open flames are permitted on any type of Christmas tree. Inspecting and enforcing these items for all Christmas Trees goes a long way to reduce fire hazard they present.

During the holiday season Christmas Trees can add additional fire hazards to building contents and furnishings not present year around. Codes/Standards aide to minimize this hazard while allowing for festive holiday decorations, however their ability to reduce the fire hazard is dire directly related to the knowledge of those inspecting to and enforcing those codes/standards. For more information about how to prevent Christmas Tree fires and steps you can take to stay fire safe during the holidays check out these NFPA resources:

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Robin Zevotek
Robin Zevotek
Principal Fire Protection Engineer with NFPA Technical Services, specializing in fire engineering and emergency response

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