CLEARWATER — Of course you laughed during the scene in A Christmas Story when the dad plugged the tacky "leg lamp" into sockets overloaded with holiday decorations, causing a burst of flames.
However, for firefighters, holiday lights — make that the holiday season entirely — is no laughing matter. It can be a dangerous time.
Earlier this month, Clearwater Fire & Rescue launched "Keep the Wreath Green,'' a program to emphasize the need for fire safety during the holiday season.
The department hung a 72-inch wreath on the front of Station No. 45, the downtown firehouse that also serves as the department's administration building. The wreath sparkles with green lights. But each time firefighters are called out to a holiday-related fire, a green bulb will be replaced with a red one.
The good news is that after two weeks, the wreath is still completely green.
"And we're hoping it's going to stay green all the way through the season,'' said assistant fire chief Scott Magness.
December is one of the busiest months of the year for firefighters, Magness said. "Actually, the colder months are all busy, when people are cold and use heaters and fire to keep warm,'' he explained.
But factor in vintage electric holiday decorations, Christmas trees that aren't watered and dry out, and — the biggest hazard of all — candles that are left unattended, and suddenly the holiday season can turn into one big fire trap.
"Three years ago, we had a Christmas Eve fire on the east side of town, and the house was destroyed,'' recalled Magness. "The next day was Christmas and while I was home, I just couldn't get it out of my mind. It was so sad to think of what the family was going through.''
As far as holiday decorating goes, Magness, who has served as a fire fighter in Pinellas County for 32 years, has his own tips to share.
"For the most part, Christmas trees are safe, but at the same time, one out of every three fires is caused by electrical problems,'' he said. So you need to be diligent about checking your strings of lights and other electrical decorations every year, he said.
"Look for worn or frayed wires, and always follow the instructions for the lights,'' he said.
Magness admits that even his house sees a much greater use of electricity over the holidays. He has a collection of miniature fire houses that he displays.
"I've got a whole Christmas village under my tree that uses electricity,'' he said. "Actually, I've got 50 or 60 structures, with 30 being fire houses in the village.''
So how does a man with fire prevention expertise decorate?
"The safest thing of all is getting extension cords with built-in circuit breakers. I've got several in use for the village,'' he said.
Magness believes there's one fact that cannot be stressed enough.
"I have never been to a fatal fire where there was a working smoke alarm,'' he said. "Make sure that your smoke alarms are working, especially right now.''