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String lights, decorations, Christmas trees and stove tops sizzling with holiday favorites might make for a festive home, but they can cause deadly fires if residents don’t take precautions.

That’s why officials from the Napa Fire Department, American Red Cross and Spanish-language disaster preparedness program Preparados took to the Woodland Apartments on Saturday morning, where they educated locals on fire prevention and checked to ensure smoke alarms were working.

The fire department also handed out Beanie Babies and coloring books to giddy kids in onesies and pajamas, who asked fire officials questions and stared in awe at the cherry-red fire engine.

Napa has already seen at least one fatal Christmas tree fire, said Matt Gonsalves, who runs Napa Fire’s smoke alarm program.

Two kids, their grandmother and her boyfriend died after a 2011 fire in East Napa that started because of a Christmas tree. A family of four in West Napa saw their home catch fire for the same reason in more recent years, but escaped thanks to a working smoke detector.

Firefighters responded to an average of 170 Christmas tree-related home fires per year between 2012 to 2016, according to statistics provided by Gonsalves.

Those fires caused an average of four deaths, 15 injuries and $12 million in property damage each year. Most of those deaths resulted from a source of heat getting too close to a tree.

Someone dies in one of every 45 home fires that begin with a Christmas tree. That number is just one in 139 of other home fires, according to Gonsalves.

A fire in one unit of the two-story, low-rise Woodland Apartments could affect five surrounding apartments, Gonsalves said. That could mean a fire could touch 12 lives, assuming two people live in each unit.

Caring for your Christmas tree

The National Fire Protection Association says Christmas tree fires aren’t common, but they can be especially serious.

The association encourages people with Christmas trees to choose trees with fresh, green needles that don’t fall off when touched. They should cut two inches from the base of the trunk before placing in the stand, and place the tree at least three feet away from fireplaces, radiators, candles, vents or lights.

Trees should be watered regularly and should not block an exit, according to the association. Trees should be disposed of when they get dry.

Lit candles should never decorate a tree and lights should be turned off before going to bed. Lights should only be used if they have the label of a recognized testing laboratory and lights should be discarded when they’re worn or broken, according to the association.

Check your smoke alarms

Napa Fire has had its smoke detector program since 1986. It’s installed 300 smoke alarms this year, Gonsalves said.

The Red Cross donates smoke alarms to the Napa Fire Department for free installation.

Its “Sound the Alarm” program has aimed to install as many smoke alarms as possible in homes since 2014, said Jeff Baumgartner, head of the organization’s California Northwest Chapter. Mobile homes and apartment buildings can catch fire particularly fast, he said.

The organization installed smoke alarms in 200 homes across Napa and Sonoma counties last year.

The Red Cross encourages people to keep a supply kit in case of a disaster. The Woodland Apartment residents were already well-prepared, he said.

“We’ve seen that since the fires last year,” Baumgartner said. “A lot of people really woke up and said, ‘Hey, I need to have a plan.’”

Erick Hernandez, head of Preparados, prepared packets of Spanish language resources for residents. He chatted with families and answered questions for Spanish-speakers at the complex.

Showing up in person makes kids feel more comfortable around first responders, he said. It means more to the community if officials show up in person to lend a hand.

Hernandez translated for tenant Juan Espinoza, who said the complex saw a bad kitchen fire in recent years. His daughter saved the unconscious tenant inside the unit.

Nobody heard a smoke detector, he said. The tenant may have escaped on her own, had there been a working alarm.

That’s why Napa Fire, Preparados and the Red Cross try to intervene before it’s too late.

“We don’t want to see any more fires,” Hernandez said. “The only way we’re going to get to that is by educating.”

Anyone who wants a free smoke alarm checkup or installation can contact Napa Fire at or call 707-257-9590.

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Public Safety Reporter

Courtney Teague is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She can be reached at 707-256-2221. You can follow her reporting on Twitter and Facebook, or send her anonymous tip at: