This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As families decorate for the holidays, Christmas tree fire safety should be considered. The National Fire Protection Association offers some helpful guidelines.
Artificial trees should be flame retardant. Live Christmas trees should have fresh, green needles and be watered every day. When needles dry out, discard the tree. Use indoor lights. Turn off lights while sleeping or away from home. Keep trees at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, heating vents, radiators or candles. Do not overload extension cords with tree lights. Replace any worn or broken lights or cords. And make sure the tree is not blocking any escape exit.
During my 20-year career at the Salt Lake City Fire Department, I've been on one Christmas tree fire that I'll never forget.
One wintry December day, my crew was out of the station in the fire engine a little before noon and the radio came on calling several stations to a fire on South Temple. Our engineer drove using lights and sirens. As we got closer, we saw a column of smoke in the air. It was the Governor's Mansion! Now smoke and flames were pouring out of the front of the mansion and second floor windows.
The Engine 1 crew had arrived at the fire first and gone on a fast attack, pulling hose off the engine, using their engine tank water and sending two firefighters inside on the first floor and two working outside.
The captain relayed to us that all occupants of the mansion were evacuated. We were assigned on the interior attack. We had on our fire clothing and breathing apparatus. We entered through an old servant entrance. We met Station 1's crew coming out as they were low on breathing air. They told us where they left the nozzle of the hose.
My partner and I started up a narrow staircase following the hose line. It became too dark and smoky to see. I was in the lead after we reached the second floor, crawling on my hands and knees following the attack hose line, trying to find the nozzle. I was using extreme caution, feeling ahead on the floor before I advanced.
It was roasting and sweat was pouring into my mask and clothing. Now it was getting lighter from the glow of the fire. We broke through some smoke and got to the free burning area.
The heat was intense, like advancing on a giant blowtorch. I came upon an end to the floor where I could see a long drop-off to the level below. I opened the nozzle and aimed toward the open flames creating a roaring whoosh, followed by gunshot-like cracks and pops. Gusts of steam, ash, soot and smoke exploded.
We kept fighting until my low air pressure alarm sounded, then immediately headed back out along the hose line. Another crew entered to relieve us. Multiple engines and crews were now on scene. Two ladder trucks were on the southern corners with tall water towers from extended aerial ladders. The majority of the fire was out in another 30 minutes.
During my crew's second entry into the mansion, the smoke had cleared. I looked around at the charred ornate, hand-carved white oak woodwork and plaster work throughout.
The central part of the mansion was a large atrium ringed by a burned off wooden circular stairway. Overhead was a golden dome, lined with blackened cherubs.
In the center of the destruction was the remnant of a huge Christmas tree.
Our job now was to peel away the woodwork and plaster with our tools to ensure no hot spots were embedded in the walls that could reignite again later. I felt sad as I pulled off now-ruined, century-old craftsmanship. The state fire marshal confirmed later in his report that an overloaded extension cord had produced enough heat to melt insulation and ignite the Christmas tree. After the fire, with extensive multiyear restoration and renovation, the mansion was returned to its original grandeur with a few additions, such as updated wiring, fire sprinkler system and second- and third-floor fire exits.
This devastating fire should serve as a reminder to follow Christmas tree fire safety standards.
Barry Makarewicz is a 20-year veteran of the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Laura Howat contributed to this article.