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'Fire is Fast'

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Cautionary tale brings heartache and Christmas tree safety to forefront

It was a much-anticipated, post-Christmas sleepover with their four young grandchildren. Don and Sandy's house was a fantasy-like, dream-come-true, majestic home nestled on a peninsula in Maryland.

Their huge living room with cathedral ceilings was still adorned and decorated for Christmas. The huge, live tree took center stage, a sight to behold.

Don's sister Sher Grog said Jan. 19, 2015, is a day she wishes she could wipe off the calendar.

"Their home was a place of fairy tales," she remembered. "The sleepover was a time to continue the magic."

That fairy tale place turned into a dark and deadly grim tale that day.

"I'll carry that cold, dark day with me always," Grog said. "I'll always remember that phone call, 'your brother's house is on fire.'"

Grog didn't even consider the six didn't get out in time. She said the house had state-of-the-art, working smoke alarms, hundreds of windows and escapes.

She learned afterward, "fire is fast." Nobody got out alive, she also learned.

Officials associate the fire with the live tree that had dried out too much and caught fire. Grog is now a spokesperson sounding a cautionary tale to anyone who will listen. She learned about "flashover," when at a certain point in a house fire, everything compostable explodes.

"In just under minutes," she said. "Nobody can beat that."

Fire Department of Mt. Juliet Chief Jamie Luffman is determined everyone "listen to what Grog has to say."

He's on a mission this season. He met Grog in September at a chief's convention in Nashville.

"Her story so moved me," he said. "I'm doing my best to get out safety tips when it comes to having live Christmas trees in our homes.

"This family had purchased a live tree well in advance of Christmas and watered it only once a week. And this happened Jan. 19, so we know it had to be extremely dry, way past Christmas."

Sadly, Luffman learned from Grog a team was to come the very next day to take it down.

"They all slept in the living room, a magical place with a magical tree," he said. "It caught fire. They were all found close to the doorway trying to get out. There were no sprinklers and they were overcome with smoke and toxins so they couldn't get out."

Luffman said this message to citizens about live tree safety is not about sprinklers at this point.

"That's not my battlefield at this time," he said. "My message is about utmost safety if you choose to get a live tree. If you must have a live tree, have good common sense."

Live trees are nostalgic, charming and a throwback to simpler times. However, with the recent coverage of local home fires and the horrific devastation in Gatlinburg from firestorms, it's a visual reality check.

"Of course water the tree every day, don't get it too early, and don't leave the lights on all the time," Luffman said.

Don't have the tree near the fireplace. It seems so simple, but there are many reported live-tree home fires.

"Sher is honoring her brother with her universal message and outreach to us," Luffman said.

Luffman has gone to all local Christmas tree lots and handed out Sher's flyer to be sent home with everyone who buys a live tree. He trying to get the message out as best he can.

"Everyone needs to learn her pain and the loss she felt," he said. "It makes this real. We need to be smart about it. I know, we love the magic of a live tree and the smell and the traditions."

Luffman said he felt it an obligation to bring Grog's story back from Nashville. He doesn't want anyone to have to "honor" their loved one in this terribly sad way.

Writer Laurie Everett can be reached at laurieeverett1@gmail.com.

Put Christmas tree safety at the top of your list:

  • Consider an artificial tree this season. They're less flammable than live trees and don't require watering.

  • If you get a live tree, make sure it's fresh. Needles should be green and springy to the touch.

  • Cut 1 to 2 inches off the bottom of the trunk before placing the tree in the stand. A fresh cut allows the tree to absorb water. Place the tree in water right away.

  • Fill the tree stand with water every day.

  • Make sure the tree is at least 3 feet away from any heat source, like floor vents, fireplaces, radiators, candles or lamps.

  • Make sure your tree is not
    blocking an exit.

  • Always turn the tree lights off or unplug them before going to bed or leaving your home.

  • Use lights that are approved by a national testing organization like UL.

  • Replace lights that have worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections.

  • Follow manufacturer's instructions for the number of light strands you can safely connect. Make sure you are using the right lights for indoors or outdoors.

  • Remove your tree immediately after the holidays even if you think it is not dry.

  • 9 out of 10 U.S. fire deaths happen in the home. People are surprised to learn that the place they feel safest is where their risk of being in a fire is greatest.

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Christmas, Christmas tree, fire, Fire Department of Mt. Juliet, home, house fire, lights, Mt. Juliet, public safety, tree
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