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Artificial Christmas Trees Can Be A Fire Hazard

CHICAGO (CBS) - An artificial tree for Christmas or a natural one? Which one is safest? Underwriters Laboratories Inc. recently found some pre-lit artificial trees can be as much as a fire hazard in your home, as a dry tree.

As CBS 2's Suzanne Le Mignot reports, there are ways to keep your family safe.

UL video shows a pre-lit artificial Christmas tree going up in flames, in a controlled setting. The blaze starts inside a firebox at the base of the tree. The firebox mimics a fire started by a candle, an electrical spark, or a discarded cigarette.

Within minutes, grey smoke turns black and the tree is engulfed. The plastic making up the artificial tree fuels the blaze quickly.

"People who have artificial trees should be just as careful as those who have real trees, especially when using things like candles," said UL Director of Consumer Safety John Drengenberg.

Another UL video shows what a burning candle can do to a real Christmas tree. The tree was dry. It wasn't watered.

"The fact is a dry tree will burn considerably faster, explosively fast," Drengenberg said.

Real trees should only be kept for four weeks and watered to maintain freshness.

The tree in the video not only goes up in flames fast, but the resulting fire consumes everything else around the tree in seconds.

"Something called flashover occurs where almost everything in the room starts burning," he said.

Asked if artificial trees are safe, Drengenberg said, "Artificial trees are not an inherent hazard. Even real trees are not actually a hazard, unless they're ignited, and that's the issue we're looking at."

The UL Director of Consumer Safety says people need to "Commit a Minute to Safety." Paying special attention to your tree can be life-saving.

"Be sure you're careful with candles," Drengenberg said. "Look for cracked sockets. Look for frayed wires. If you see any of these things, the best thing you can do is throw those decorations away."

Look for the UL label too. This means your light fixtures have gotten the safety seal of approval UL gives, only after rigorous testing.

"We don't allow the manufacturer to put the UL mark on the product unless it meets every aspect of the standard," Drengenberg said.

Some other safety tips: look for flame-resistant artificial trees. Unplug your tree lights before going to bed and when leaving home.

Never try to hide an extension cord under a rug. The cord can became damaged and spark a slow smoldering fire. That fire can go undetected, until it's too late.

UL says new requirements will be put into effect when it comes to how trees perform under a fire test. UL anticipates there will be trees carrying the UL mark, possibly by the 2011 holiday season.

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