Nassau County firefighters conducted a Christmas tree fire safety demo showing how quickly a dry tree can go up in flames. NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa reports. Credit: NewsdayTV; Barry Sloan

With New York State leading the country in fatal fires, Nassau County firefighters held a demonstration in preparation for the holiday season, showing that a dry Christmas tree can make a house go up in flames in less than a minute. 

They set off a controlled burn of a Christmas tree at the Nassau County V.E.E.B. Fire Service Academy in Bethpage on Tuesday, and it quickly engulfed a makeshift home. 

County officials, including Nassau Executive Bruce Blakeman and Chief Fire Marshal Michael Uttaro, emphasized the importance of taking basic safety precautions to prevent a scene like that in your own home.

It's a needed reminder, Uttaro said, because even though fewer than 12 holiday-related fires occur in the county each year, from factors such as tree fires, candles left unattended or faulty lights, "it's a dozen too many."

New York State leads the nation in fatal fires, with 141 fatalities to date this year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

“We've had fatal fires every year,” Uttaro said. “I'd like to say every one of those fatal fires is preventable, had there been proper safety precautions in place.”

The fire-prevention tips offered by the experts on Tuesday included:

  • Make sure holiday lights are "UL" listed, which means they have been tested by Underwriters Laboratories, an independent, global safety science organization, or that they are otherwise factory tested. Also, remember that "the cheapest ones aren't always the best ones," according to Uttaro.
  • Test old or existing lights before decorating a tree or putting them around the house. Loose or frayed wires and dimmed or not fully working bulbs are more than enough reason to purchase a new set.
  • Use a heavy-duty extension cord. “Don't use the ones that you can buy at the local 99-cent store or online,” Uttaro said.

Both Uttaro and Alana Petrocelli, executive director of the Nassau County Firefighters Museum & Education Center, said that from a safety standpoint, November is still “too early” to buy a tree. It is more likely to dry out and have an increased chance of catching fire, they said, adding that the best time to buy a tree is two weeks before Christmas.

If you recently purchased a tree, officials recommend you keep it outside for a long as possible to increase its hydration.

Also, they said, it's crucial to make sure that the tree is healthy. If a lot of needles fall off when you shake the tree, it's best to find another one. It's also crucially important to keep the tree away from anything that can make it dry out faster, such as a space heater.

Above all, make sure you have an escape plan in case of emergency and that your home has working smoke detectors.

"This should be your number one decoration this year, because this is the most important thing that you can have in your home," Petrocelli said.

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