VANCOUVER - "This should be a joyous time of year but statistics show it can also be a dangerous one. Nearly 500 deadly home fires happen each December as a result of Christmas trees catching fire. Many of these fires and deaths can be prevented by taking a few simple precautions," according to JoAnne Akely, American Red Cross emergency services senior director.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, four out of seven home fires occur during December, January and February, and using candles and overloading electrical circuits cause about half of these fires. As families turn to alternative heating sources out of necessity or to avoid the rising cost of oil and gas, there is an increased risk of accidental fires in the home.

Tom Griffith, Southwest Washington Chapter board member and director of the Clark Regional Emergency Service Agency (CRESA), said candle safety alone would help prevent thousands of injuries each year.

"Taking precautions such as keeping candles away from Christmas trees, never leaving children unattended in a room with lit candles and always keeping candles, as well as matches and lighters, out of the reach of children, could prevent thousands of injuries and numerous deaths," he said.

The American Red Cross recommends the following safety tips for a joyous holiday season:

Keep Christmas trees fresh - Place your tree away from heat sources and exits; water it daily. Make sure your artificial tree is fire-retardant.

Decorate only with flame-retardant or non-combustible materials - Avoid using candles during parties. Check ashtrays, upholstery and trash cans for smoldering cigarette butts after any holiday party.

Inspect fireplaces and wood stoves - Have your chimney connections and flues inspected by a professional and cleaned if necessary prior to the start of the heating season. Burn only wood - never burn paper, including discarded gift-wrap, or pine boughs. If you plan to hang stockings on your fireplace, do not use the fireplace for fires.

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