(Family Features) - Christmas tree-related fires are too often a sad part of holiday news coverage.
Most of those fires start because tree owners have either neglected caring for a fresh tree or overlooked some basics of electrical safety, said Jake Weber, horticulturist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.
The test for whether an evergreen tree is too dry for indoor display is the same one K-State recommends for judging whether a tree-lot specimen is fresh-cut, Weber said.
"Run your hands through the needles to see if they are firmly attached. Lightly pull some needles and give them a gentle twist. You need to do this kind of inspection often once you've placed a cut evergreen in your home," he said. "Dry needles will be brittle and easy to detach. Excessive needle loss indicates a tree that's too dry to buy or to display indoors."
Tree placement can have a big impact on how long a tree remains fresh indoors, Weber said.
"The general rule is to protect it from heat," he explained. "For example, rapid drying is likely for a tree placed near a fireplace or heat register or a large window that admits direct sunlight.
"Some types of tree lights can give off a lot of heat, so you should avoid them, too."
Evergreen trees continually lose moisture through their needles – which is why landscape evergreens can even need watering during the winter, he said. So, for a "real" Christmas tree, water supply can be as important as display temperature.
"When it's cut, a tree rapidly seals off its newly exposed tissues – protecting its inner structure from water, as well as from air," Weber said. "To get rid of that barrier, you have to saw a 1-inch slice from the bottom of the trunk immediately before placing a tree in its stand.
"To replenish the tree's moisture as long as possible, you keep the bottom of its newly cut trunk immersed in water. That means you need a stand specifically designed to provide water for a tree. And, you need to check the stand's water level at least daily."
Doing all of this won't guarantee an evergreen tree will last indefinitely.
"Some tree species dry out faster than others. Eventually, though, they all dry out – no matter what you do," he said. "And, signs of excessive dryness are the signal to remove the tree promptly. "Don't burn your tree in the fireplace; that's very dangerous. Don't take it outside and lean it against the house, either, because the slightest spark could almost instantly set it – and then your house – ablaze."
Weber also had these suggestions for safely displaying both live and artificial holiday trees:
- Only use safety-approved decorative light sets. Do NOT aim for the historical ambiance of lit candles.
- Before decorating, inspect all electrical lights and extension cords. Replace units that have cracks in the insulation and exposed wires.
- Don't overload wall outlets with tangles of electrical cords.
- Don't allow discarded gift wrappings and other flammable materials to accumulate around electrical outlets or the Christmas tree.