Investigative Unit

Burning Question: Can a $70 Christmas Tree Ornament Alert You to Danger?

NBCUniversal, Inc.

'Tis the season to find a Christmas tree. But for too many families, it's also the time of year dozens of families nationwide will lose everything -- to a fire that started on their tree.

This demonstration by the National Institute of Standards and Technology shows how quickly a Christmas tree fire can start, and spread:

The National Fire Protection Association says about 160 Christmas trees catch fire each year, resulting in three deaths and damage totaling $10 million.

A new product aims to give families an early warning. Safer Alarms, Inc. created a high-tech Christmas tree ornament, with a wireless heat detector inside. You hang the $70 plastic ball on your tree, and put a remote speaker in your bedroom. If your tree catches fire, the white box is designed to immediately sound a 90-decibel alarm.

The manufacturer sent one of its Safer Christmas Tree Alarms to NBC Bay Area. So, we decided to visit a Los Gatos Christmas tree farm, to find ourselves a fir -- fit for a fire.

We cut it down and let it sit for a week, then hauled our drying tree to the Cal Fire station in Morgan Hill, south of San Jose.

Santa Clara County Fire Marshal Dwight Good and a team of firefighters from Cal Fire Engine Company 1675 helped us set up the experiment. Then, the firefighters set the tree ablaze.

The branches weren't very dry, but they ignited anyway.

"If that was in your home, you'd have less than two minutes to escape the house," Good said. "The heat buildup is really rapid."

The alarm remained silent at first, and the ornament fell from the burning tree and hit the ground nearby. Nonetheless, it sounded, about 45 seconds after the fire started.

After Engine Company 1675 doused our burning tree with water, we grabbed the slightly-melted gadget from the ground. It was still on and functioning.

The firefighters moved in for a closer look -- and were impressed.

"Pretty good idea," said one.

"That's legit, right there," offered another.

Fire Marshal Good was a little less enthralled with the 45 seconds it took for the alarm to sound.

"That was a little late," Good said. "That would probably be too late if you were asleep in bed."

We shared the results with Safer Alarms. It told us:

Our ornament is effective with a rapid response. Even after our sensor ornament is destroyed, our remote alarm will continue to sound! This provides a level of protection no one else can.

Good recommends some steps to prevent your tree from catching fire.

"Most [Christmas tree selling] lots can treat them with a fire retardant," he said. "I like that."

Good also said you should place your tree at least three feet away from any potential heat source, cut a couple inches off the base of the trunk and, crucially, "keep it watered."

This test from the Consumer Product Safety Commission demonstrates why:

The tree on the left was watered daily. The one on the right was not. The dry tree goes up in flames far faster than the watered tree.

Research from the National Fire Protection Association has found a Christmas tree fire is more likely to kill someone than an everyday house fire. So, Fire Marshal Good says as soon as you bring a Christmas tree home, you should check your smoke detectors. Make sure they're powered up, and that the sirens are working.

If you need help, contact your local fire department. They might offer services to help you test smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in your home, for free.

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