It's a tough choice, deciding whether to get a real or artificial Christmas tree. And, like most parents in the age of the internet, your decisions are probably influenced by shock-value news stories, like a tragic tale of a Christmas tree and all its presents burnt to a crisp because the lights shorted and the needles were too dry. Or, you may have enjoyed a post-Christmas tree-bonfire, and that got you worrying about the flammability of this festive decor. But is this fiery problem exclusive to real trees? Can artificial Christmas trees catch fire, too?
Yes. They can. Anything can burn, with enough heat, and artificial trees are no different. But, they're a lot less likely to catch fire than a real tree. (Unless your artificial tree has been recalled, which is something you can check on the US Consumer Product Safety Commission website. Then your risk may be higher!)
Why are artificial trees safer? Well, it depends on a number of things. Here's a side-by-side comparison.
Real trees are made of, well, firewood. And needles, which, as any good camper knows, make great fire-starters. Needles and wood burn better when they're dry, so you can reduce the risk by keeping them from drying out, as the North Carolina Consumers Council explained. But they're still fundamentally made of firewood.
Artificial trees are made of a variety of materials, per Business Insider. PVC, a type of plastic, is a common main ingredient. This is often wrapped around a metal frame and then covered in lights, ornaments, and fake "snow," which is often made of latex paint. Trees can also be made of metal or fiber optics. Some of these materials, like metals, aren't going to burn; others, like the PVC that most trees are made of, can catch fire. But, even if PVC does catch fire, it doesn't burn as fast or as fiercely as a dry tree, according to CBS Chicago.
When buying an artificial tree that is pre-wired with lights, look for the UL symbol: the letters "UL" in a circle, often located on the battery pack, safety tag, and/or product packaging. Underwriters Laboratories tests products for safety, including testing flammability. You've probably seen their symbol on hundreds of products and not even noticed it. Or now that you know, you'll start noticing it on all kinds of things, from your toaster to your kids' battery-powered toys. The UL symbol tells you that this tree has been safety-checked.
Many artificial trees are now coated in a flame-retardant coating, according to Artificial Plants Unlimited. Or, if your tree isn't yet coated, you can buy a spray and coat it yourself.
Yes, these coatings are also available for real trees. But then you have to remember to apply it each year. And decorating is already a lot of trouble, especially with "helpful" small children. You can get an artificial tree with the flame-retardant coating already applied, so it'll be safer (but not fireproof) for the first moment it enters your home.
The good news and the bad news is that some pre-lit artificial trees have been recalled, due to safety issues like exposed wiring, which could make them catch fire. It's bad because, well, fire. And it's good because someone is actually checking for these problems, so they can find a problem before it finds you. Yes, you have to look it up each year, as new recalls are issued when new problems are found, even with old products. But you can't tell me that it's really too much trouble to google something.
Ok, some people probably still light their Christmas trees with actual candles. I'm sure it's gorgeous. But most folks are using electric lights. And that's the cause of most Christmas tree fires. No matter how dry it is, a real tree isn't going to just burst into flames. It needs a spark to start it. And that spark usually comes from the electricity.
So, whether you have an artificial or real tree, the most important thing is to pay attention to electrical safety, reported Safe Bee. Don't plug too many things into one outlet. And don't connect too many strings of lights in a row; electrically, it's about the same as plugging them into the same outlet. Check the wiring for tears in the plastic insulation, especially after it's been stored all scrunched up. Don't let children or pets chew, tear, or otherwise damage the wires. Turn the lights off at night, when no one is watching them. Check to make sure things stay plugged all the way in, as a half-plugged-in wire can be a big hazard, both for fires and electrocutions. Keep other flammable materials away, too. You don't want a hot bulb to ignite a piece of tissue paper. If you do choose a tree that's made mostly of metal, especially one with metal "needles," check on how to safely light it — because that metal can conduct electricity, if any exposed wiring touches it.
So, while artificial trees can catch fire, they're a lot less likely to. And, whichever kind of tree you pick, the most important thing is basic electrical safety.