WASHINGTON — It’s still not clear what caused the Annapolis Yacht Club to go up in flames over the weekend, but fire officials are warning families that Christmas trees can cause a massive blaze within seconds. And it’s happened before.
Reports from witnesses that the Yacht Club fire was started by a Christmas tree are unconfirmed. But that’s what happened nearly a year ago, in an Annapolis mansion on Childs Point Road on Jan. 19.
“It was an electrical fire that was then fueled by the Christmas tree,” says Anne Arundel County Fire Capt. Russ Davies.
The tree skirt caught fire and intense flames quickly engulfed the home. Donald and Sandra Pyle and their four grandchildren died from smoke inhalation.
Fire officials have often told residents to water Christmas trees regularly to prevent drying out. But the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted tests as a result of the Childs Point fire, and the results were stunning.
“What we really learned was startling to most fire experts — what a difference it makes to have a tree constantly watered,” Davies says. “The tree that had been watered constantly basically extinguished itself. Even though the tree is cut, it’s constantly taking in water.”
A regularly watered tree retained about 73 percent of its moisture after 60 days, Davies says, compared to 17 percent and 30 percent for the two trees in the test that were not watered every day.
A good rule of thumb: One quart of water per day, per inch of diameter of the tree trunk.
Davies says investigators believe the Pyle’s tree was not constantly watered, although it’s not clear how often it was.
ATF and Anne Arundel County Fire Department’s final report about the Childs Point fire found that a tree watered daily took 7 minutes to ignite, but did generate enough heat to burn down a house as large as the Pyles’. Two other test trees that were not watered regularly burned within 5 to 30 seconds.
Other tips to help keep your Christmas tree safe:
- Inspect the lights to make sure there are no frayed wires;
- follow manufacturer instructions;
- only use UL-approved lights;
- unplug the lights at night;
- and make sure the tree is at least three feet from a heat source and not blocking any exits.
The Annapolis Fire Marshall’s Office continues to investigate the Annapolis Yacht Club fire to determine the cause. The club vows to rebuild and says it’s committed to helping its employees through the transition.
In a video from the Fire Kills Campaign, flames from a Christmas tree engulf a room in less than 60 seconds: