The Los Angeles City Fire Department has some cogent words of advice during this holiday season:
Try not to let your Christmas tree burn down your home.
But no matter what firefighters do or say, there is the virtual certainty that, by next Wednesday, 35 to 40 households in the city will have experienced fires that start in Christmas trees. For these families, Christmas will turn from joy to agony in the quarter of a minute or less that it takes for the average tree--drying out and increasingly ignored in the week or so after Christmas Day--to change from holiday symbol to exploding torch.
The Fire Department said Thursday that a preliminary tally found there were at least six tree fires on Christmas Day--all severe enough to have destroyed at least the room in which they occurred.
And almost all of these fires are, for a variety of technical reasons, just as overpowering as an explosion of flame from chaparral destroying a hillside at the height of brush-fire season. But they are far more preventable.
To prove their point, firefighter Vince Marzo and Capt. Don Stukey calmly tossed a burning railroad flare under a tree set up in the parking lot behind Fire Station 16 near downtown Los Angeles earlier this week. The tree, an undecorated specimen donated by a tree yard, stood about seven feet tall.
The tree smoldered unconvincingly for a few seconds as the fire established itself at the base. But as the lower branches started to catch, the tree was transformed into what firefighters call an "accelerant," or a volatile fuel source as potentially incendiary as gasoline.
The seconds ticked on as the tree underwent a process firemen call "preheating." It's the same thing that happens on a hillside as a brush fire driven by Santa Ana winds starts to attack a virgin growth of chaparral. The modest beginnings of the fire in essence load up the tree with heat, paving the way for what happens a split second later.
The preheating completed, the Christmas tree erupted into flames in what can only be described as a fireball. Burning bits of branches flew into the air still aflame and the tree--its flames now raging out of control--started to consume itself in a process that would take less than 60 seconds until nothing remained but the black sticks of the trunk and branches.
A fireman standing nearby clicked a stopwatch. From the first point at which the fire got tentatively established in the low branches to the eruption of the fireball, exactly eight seconds had passed.
In the average room--a living room, for instance--the intense heat generated by the eruption would be momentarily contained by the ceiling but would quickly do what firemen call "banking." Superheated air would fan out from the source of the fire and, within a few seconds, ignite anything flammable in the room--from the drapes to gifts still scattered on the floor.
"Anything in the room is going to go," Stukey said matter-of-factly. "What we tell the people to do is get out of the house. There is nothing you can do at that point. You are not going to put it out.
Marzo picked up the commentary. "There is too much fire for a fire extinguisher. We've tried every type there is, from dry chemical to halon (an advanced gas fire retardant)," Marzo said. "A garden hose won't put a dent in it. By the time you could get outside and get the hose, anyway, the room will be fully involved. It's going to take the Fire Department to extinguish it."
If a Christmas tree fire starts in your home, Marzo and Stukey said, about the best you can expect is for the entire room in which the tree was standing to be gutted. That's if you're lucky. If you aren't lucky, there will be nothing left of your house or apartment.
Marzo said that no matter what lengths the Fire Department goes to in terms of prevention and public education, between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day more than three dozen Los Angeles families will have their holidays marred by such fires, year in and year out.
As the holiday season wears on after Christmas Day, Marzo said, cut Christmas trees start to dry out, irrespective of how much water they are standing in. Trees on stands that do not contain a water reservoir dry out even more quickly.
Signs of excess dryness are a change in color from bright, dark green to dull green-brown in an unflocked tree and a tendency of needles to drop off by themselves or come off if a tree branch is touched.