After a fire ignited by Christmas lights gutted a Rossmoor garage, destroying precious family photos and memorabilia, fire investigators Thursday urged Orange County residents to prevent similar accidents this holiday season.
The fire that began Wednesday night in a garage on Woodstock Road was ignited by a spark from a long string of holiday lights that were spliced together, something firefighters warned should never be done.
The flames, fed by combustible rags in the garage, were extinguished within eight minutes, but not before destroying photographic slides and other personal memorabilia. Damage was estimated at $8,500.
"The family felt real bad," said fire information officer Dennis Shell of the Orange County Fire Authority, who said such fires are unfortunately a certainty each holiday season.
"The downside to the Christmas season is that we know that as the season progresses, we're going to have fires caused by Christmas trees, we know we're going to have fires caused by electrical lights," Shell said. "It always happens."
Nationally, Christmas trees cause at least 400 fires a year, resulting in an average of 10 deaths, 80 injuries and more than $15 million in damage, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 7,500 people a year are treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to holiday lights and Christmas trees.
Locally, at least four homes in Orange County were heavily damaged last season in holiday-related blazes. Those included a homeowner in Anaheim Hills who stuffed a tree into his fireplace, sending up sparks that ignited his roof, and a man in Buena Park who caused an explosion by putting holiday wrapping paper into a gas fireplace.
Wednesday's fire began at about 5 p.m. when an electrical spark occurred at the light-strand splicing, Shell said. The spark set some rags in the garage on fire, and the flames quickly spread. The residents were not home, but smoke alarms went off and neighbors who noticed the flames called police, Shell said.
"The good news was that he had two smoke detectors and they were activated. It was a neighbor who noticed the fire and called it in to us, or it would have been a lot worse," Shell said.
In addition to improperly splicing the lights together, the lights had been hung with a staple gun, but the staples punctured the cord's rubber lining in several spots, he said.
The homeowner could be seen Thursday picking over the blackened remains of his possessions in his garage, including numerous photographic slides, but declined to talk about the incident.
"It's pretty sad," Shell said.
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Outdoor Lighting Precautions
Holiday lights must be fastened securely to prevent wind damage, but be careful not to compromise the protective insulation. Some common methods of attachment and safer alternatives:
* Insulated staples
* Brass hooks (can be left in place)
* Plastic clip-on holders
* Use only those rated for outdoor use
* Check for bare wires, broken or cracked sockets
* Do not try to fix damaged sets
* Do not splice light strings together
* Point bulbs downward so moisture drains off the end of the bulb and not into the socket
* Wrap connections with electrical tape to keep them dry
* Turn off all lights when leaving home or going to bed
* For added protection, plug outdoor lights into outlets protected by ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Portable GFCIs are available from electrical supply stores.
Using an extension cord with outdoor lights is going to be necessary in many circumstances. If you have to use one:
* Use one that is cut or damaged
* Connect more than three light strings to one
* Use one if it isn't rated for outdoor use by Underwriters Laboratories
* Keep a cord plugged in when it is not in use
* Place a cord through a door or window
* Use one that feels hot to the touch
* Run a cord through standing water or extremely wet areas
* Plug it into a protected outdoor outlet
* Store the cords indoors when they are not in use
Sources: Underwriters Laboratories, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Kansas City Power and Light
Researched by JANICE JONES DODDS/Los Angeles Times