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Fire officials warn of
holiday house-fire danger

By Daniel Silliman and Jason Smith

dsilliman@news-daily.com, jsmith@news-daily.com

Beware of dirty chimneys, deep-fried turkeys and dried-out trees. Clayton and Henry county fire officials say these three things cause a spike in home fires, during the holiday season in the Southern Crescent.

"Around the holidays, the No. 1 cause of fires is chimney fires, followed by Christmas trees, followed by the occasional turkey-fryer incident," said Clayton County Fire Department Capt. Laudry Merkison. "It gets hectic, everybody running around. But, take a minute, stop, and think about what you're doing before you do it. Because, inevitably, Uncle Ted singes his eyebrows off. So slow down. Take a minute."

Brad Johnson, division chief of operations at the Henry County Fire Department, urges everyone to be careful and be mindful of fire safety precautions during the holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving.

He said people should be careful when using a turkey fryer to deep-fry their holiday birds. Johnson said fryers shouldn't be used on a wood deck, near the house or in a garage.

"Generally," the division chief said, "a fire starts when the oil runs over, out of the fryers."

Merkison said he will be deep-frying a turkey, on the national holiday, and thinks it's a great way to cook the bird, but it requires a few safety measures.

"There's two things people commonly do wrong, when frying a turkey," he said. "They put too much oil in, and then when they sink the turkey in there, the oil overflows -- or, they don't completely thaw the turkey. When ice hits boiling oil, there is a violent reaction. It causes it to boil at a much higher rate. It's going to foam over the top."

Fire officials also reminded the Southern Crescent's holiday chefs to keep an eye on their ovens and stoves. It's easy, Merkison said, to get distracted by all the friends and family in the house, but you have to keep an eye on the things cooking in the kitchen.

The big increase in house fires, however, happens around Christmas time, so officials recommend people start thinking about their decorating now.

Johnson said people need to be really careful about candles. "Make sure they're in stable holders, and never leave your house with a candle burning," he said. "Never put a lit candle on or near the Christmas tree."

Last year, Merkison said, he responded to three Clayton County house fires, started by live Christmas trees in a single shift.

"These trees are cut months before," the captain said. "They've been drying out long before you get it. It's real important that when you purchase one, you get all the dead pine needles out."

Merkison said Christmas lights need to be checked for cracks and breaks, before they're wrapped around a tree. Johnson added that most manufacturers recommend no more than three strands of lights should be laced around the evergreen, because the wires start to heat up when over-extended.

Dried-out evergreens are very dangerous. Sometimes, after Christmas, the tree is left up, people stop watering it, and a fire hazard is created in the center of the home. "When it ignites, it's incredible how fast it will burn,"Merkison said. "In under 20 seconds, that room will be totally involved, to the point where you can not get out. You've got to keep those trees watered."

The most common cause of fires during the holiday season, however, is not directly connected to Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Day. What really causes the spike in fires, Merkison said, is chimneys. The spur of the moment fire in the hearth can be dangerous, if the chimney's not clean.

"We see a rash of chimney fires," the Clayton captain said. "It's just the holiday thing to do. But, if you're going to use your fire place, and haven't had it cleaned in a while, you may want to have someone come out and inspect it."

The general safeguard, against season-ruining house fires, officials say, is vigilance, carefulness and simply taking the time for precautions.

"Just be safe," Merkison said.