Are Live Christmas Trees Really Fire Hazards?

Here’s what the statistics say.

Are Live Christmas Trees Really Fire Hazards?

Credit…Nadia Pillon

Are Live Christmas Trees Really Fire Hazards?

Q: My girlfriend and I live together in an Upper West Side co-op. I want to buy a live Christmas tree, but she wants an artificial one because she thinks the real ones are inconvenient and pose a fire hazard. To that, I say: A fake tree??? Our building wouldn’t decorate the lobby with a real tree if it were a fire hazard, right? Please settle this for us: Is there a safe and convenient way to have a real Christmas tree?

A: You are not the first couple to enter the real-versus-artificial Christmas tree debate. While I cannot settle a domestic disagreement, I can offer you some information to bolster both positions (and maybe draw out this argument well into the holiday season.)

Let’s start with the fire risk. Of the roughly 354,000 home-structure fires that occur in the U.S. each year, about 160 are attributed to Christmas trees, according to the National Fire Protection Association. While the risk is small compared with other culprits (like kitchen fires), it does exist. Those figures include both live and artificial trees, but the NFPA reports that “a disproportionate share of Christmas tree fires involved natural trees,” with live-tree fires outnumbering artificial-tree fires by about three to one and causing about 20 times more injuries. So you can’t dismiss your girlfriend’s anxiety.

And you may not want to use your co-op’s holiday display as an example of stellar fire-safety measures, because the New York City Fire Department prohibits live Christmas trees and decorations, like garlands, in common areas of buildings. Is your building the only one ignoring the rule? Probably not.

“Do buildings violate the law?” wrote Steven R. Wagner, a Manhattan real estate lawyer, in an email. “Er, um, uhhh, well (in a low whisper so no one else can hear) yes, all the time.”

Live trees are permitted in apartments, however, and the Fire Department offers tips on how to care for them safely. When you’re tree shopping, shake the branches to see how many needles fall off, as loose needles mean a dry tree. At home, trim the stump, water it daily and unplug electrical cords at night. Since artificial trees can catch fire, too, buy one that’s fire retardant. Keep your tree, whether it’s live or fake, at least three feet from any radiators.

If your girlfriend doesn’t feel like dragging a tree home, remind her that this is New York — everything can be delivered. Services like Tyler’s Trees, NYC Trees and SoHo Trees will deliver and even decorate your tree.

If you ultimately decide to go the artificial route, Wirecutter recommends some fairly believable looking options. Before you invest, figure out where you’ll store yours until next year.

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