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Menlo Park fire district shares holiday fire safety tips

Graphic demonstration shows how fire can ruin a holiday

They say a picture is worth a thousand words; but actually witnessing something as dramatic as a dry Christmas tree being consumed in flames within 30 seconds of ignition may be worth even more.

During a public demonstration on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 14, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District tried to sear into the minds of local residents the importance of holiday fire safety by igniting two Christmas trees, dropping a turkey into an over-filled deep fryer, and starting fires in two sheds set up to resemble rooms full of holiday decorations.

Firefighters first tried to light a fresh and well-hydrated tree with a torch, without luck. They then touched flame to a dried-out tree, which was fully-engulfed in flames within 30 seconds.

In addition to always keeping trees well-hydrated, the experts also recommended that older or damaged lights and extension cords, the most common sources of ignition, be thrown away to avoid risks.

The firefighters demonstrated a memorable inferno by tossing modern petroleum-based synthetic fabrics and items onto a smoldering burn. Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said a fire fueled by synthetics can quickly reach temperatures of 1,000 degrees.

Smoke billowed up as flames engulfed the shed, corkscrewing up as air was sucked in from below, with the heat pushing onlookers back from the fire.

"You can imagine being a firefighter crawling through the building" in such a fire, Chief Schapelhouman said. "You can see here the awesome power of fire that every firefighter respects," he said.

Chief Schapelhouman reminded the crowd that the fire district recently responded to three fires in three days, two of them structure fires. One, he said, was caused when a resident, distracted by a phone call, left a stove with a pan on the heat unattended. The second is believed to have been caused by a faulty extension cord or product wiring.

Among the facts the district wanted to get across:

● Christmas tree fires are four times more likely to result in a death than other home fires.

● Holiday decoration fires are most commonly caused by proximity to a heat source such as a candle. The top three days for candle fires are Christmas, New Year's Eve and Christmas Eve.

● Holiday cooking fires are most commonly caused by unattended cooking. Top three days for cooking fires: Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.

Safety tips

● Keep Christmas trees well hydrated and don't use damaged lights or extension cords.

● Do not place candles near holiday decorations or combustible sources such as curtains.

● Keep combustibles away from cooking areas and keep an eye on what is cooking.

● Test smoke detectors by pushing the test button.

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