By SALLY ROBINSON and KEITH BLY

Every year without fail, the joy of this holiday season is tempered by news that a handful of families have lost a home or a child to a fire during the Christmas week.

Cold weather, space heaters and dry Christmas trees make a dangerous combination. Here again are some tips on how to make decorations safe and avoid a family tragedy.

  • Have an operable fire extinguisher readily available.
  • Invest in an artificial Christmas tree with label showing Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) approves it.
  • If you buy a natural tree, check to make sure the needles feel soft and pliable. Bend a twig to see if the branch is moist. Brush against the “grain” of a branch and avoid trees that lose needles. Remember many trees are sprayed “green,” so color alone is not a sufficient guide.
  • Most trees are cut weeks before Christmas and need care to get them through the season. Just as with cut flowers, the cut ends of these trees seal themselves and cannot absorb moisture.

It is necessary to cut an inch or two on a diagonal from the base and place the tree in a bucket of water so it can absorb water until you are ready to decorate it.

Mix some commercial preservative with the water for best results. Check the level of water daily. A Christmas tree should absorb a gallon of water every two days.

  • Locate the tree as far as possible from space heaters, fireplaces and candles. Secure the tree with wire to keep it from tipping.
  • A drying Christmas tree full of pitch can explode into fire. For that reason, never try to burn your old Christmas tree in the fireplace.
  • Use UL-approved lights, preferably the miniature cool-burning bulbs, and turn off the lights and extinguish all candles when you leave your home or when you sleep. If you live in an old home or apartment, be sure not to overload any circuit with too many strings of lights. Check that fuses or circuit breakers are not too large for the wiring.
  • This also is a good time to check that your smoke detectors are working. If you are using gas space heaters, make one of your presents to yourself is a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Make sure that you use only outdoor extensions and lights for outside illumination. Seal connectors with electrician’s tape or wrap in plastic. Be careful putting up roof or tree lights and climbing and descending ladders.

Lights in homes across the city help to unite us in the season of peace and love. The smell of fresh pine needles and the colored twinkle of Christmas lights can be a source of great joy and wonder for the whole family. Take care to keep this a safe holiday.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital, and Keith Bly is an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the UTMB Pediatric Urgent Care Clinics. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.