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The most wonderful time of the year can also be one of the most calamitous on the homefront.

The holidays are a time when we're playing with fire, fiddling with Christmas lights and putting our ovens and stoves into perpetual use. December is the peak time for fires caused by candles, and while housefires ignited by Christmas trees aren't common, they are often deadly, with one out of every 40 Christmas tree fires resulting in death, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

The National Fire Data Center, with the Department of Homeland Security, said the losses per residential fire during the winter are one-and-a-half times greater than other types of fires. But death and injury rates are twice as great.

To prevent an accident from draining the happy out of your holidays, take a little time to do a safety check of your house, do some basic maintenance of appliances and be mindful of potential hazards.

"Don't be in a hurry as you're doing things," advises Sonoma County Fire Marshall Roberta McIntyre. "Don't be in a rush around the stove. Don't be be rushed putting lights on the tree. If you get too rushed you may forget to be observant about the things that might happen if you don't do things properly."

<b>Fire prevention</b>

Fire detectors: Check the batteries on your smoke detectors. And if you have any natural gas in your house, purchase a carbon monoxide detector. You're more at risk now for poisoning when the windows are closed. McIntyre recommends checking batteries each time you move the clock forward or back.

Christmas tree safety: Trees are highly flammable. "It can go up in less than a minute," McIntyre warns. "All that's left is a little stick sticking out of a stand." To prevent that, replace older lights with the newer LED lights that put out a lot less heat. Some tree fires are caused by loose connections. Even though you can theoretically string together endless strands of lights, that can lead to electrical overload. McIntyre says three strands together should be your maximum. Connect them to an extension cord. And don't overload electrical outlets. Also, make sure the connections are all securely plugged together and into the wall. Improper connections can create sparks. If you have a real tree, keep it adequately watered to keep it from drying out. McIntyre says they can gulp the water in their stands rapidly, so check a couple times a day and refill the water if necessary.

Candles: 'Tis the season for candles, not only for ambiance and decoration but for those occasional power outages. McIntyre says you should always make sure the candle is nowhere near curtains or other combustibles. Make sure that they are in stable holders that won't tip and are at least a foot away from anything that can burn. Avoid using them in bedrooms.

Fireplace: Creosote build-up in your chimney can lead to house fires. If you haven't had your chimney cleaned in the last year, call in a professional chimney sweep. Never put your Christmas tree branches and needles or wrapping paper in your wood-burning fireplace or stove. Make sure the flu is open before you light any fire.

Cooking: Statisically, most home fires during December are related to cooking, according to the U.S. Fire Adminstraton's National Fire Data Center. Never leave anything on the stove unattended and turn the hands of pots inward so they don't get knocked. Don't wear clothing that might hang over an open gas flame. Clean counters with disposable paper towels rather than dishcloths or sponges that can harbor and spread bacteria. Check your knives for sharpness. Most knife injuries are due to dull blades.

Your TV: This is the time of year when families gather around the big screen to watch movies. But those thinner and larger screens have led to an increase in injuries to children when TVs tip over, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Check to make sure your big screen is secure on its stand or its wall mount. Companies like SANUS make safe wall mounts available at stores like Best Buy, Costco and Target.

Appliance maintenance: Poor maintenance can not only reduce appliances' performance but also create food-safety problems. Ron Allen, of Ron's Appliance Repair in Santa Rosa, said you should also change the water filter in your refrigerator every year. It can become clogged with residue so it doesn't work well or the water tastes bad. It can also get clogged with bacteria you don't want to drink. While you're at it, buy some dishwasher cleaner and run it through a dishwasher cycle to remove soap residue and calcium buildup. It will improve the efficiency while also preventing bacteria from building up.

<b>Tree maintenance</b>

Check the trees in your yard for any branches hanging over your roof or other structures. Heavy winds and rain can cause limbs to break. Lucas Graves, an 18-year veteran arborist with Empire Tree Experts, said most of the serious damage he's seen from fallen trees and limbs can be traced to poor or no maintenance. Have a professional assess your trees and do the work, he added, to prevent injuries from falls, etc. Arborists have the right equipment and expertise to trim safely or remove diseased trees that could fall down in a storm.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.