FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Army News Service, Dec. 2, 2010) -- Blaring lights and sirens of fire trucks and emergency vehicles do not make happy holiday memories. Yet, for many fire departments and emergency response units, December can be the busiest month of the year.

Fire departments across the United States respond to an estimated 128,700 fires every December, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. On average, these incidents result in 1,650 injuries and 415 deaths.

While Christmas tree fires account for only a small percentage of the overall total each year, electric lights and candles can present a very real hazard for homeowners if proper precautions aren't taken.

Tree fires typically start from shorts in electrical lights or open flames from candles, lighters or matches. And while many people prefer the smell and fullness of fresh-cut trees, they might not be aware of the special care and maintenance required to keep these trees fireproof. The National Fire Protection Agency provides the following safety tips for holiday decorations:

Aca,!AcChoose a tree with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched. Before placing the tree in the stand, cut 1-to-2 inches from the base of the trunk.

Aca,!AcEnsure the tree is at least three feet away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights, and that it's not blocking an exit.

Aca,!AcAdd water to the tree stand. Be sure to add water daily and always turn off Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed.

Aca,!AcChoose decorations that are flame resistant or flame retardant. Ensure artificial trees are labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire retardant.

Aca,!AcKeep lit candles away from decorations and other items that can burn. Never use lit candles to decorate a tree.

Aca,!AcUse lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory.

Aca,!AcReplace any string of lights that has worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections.

Aca,!AcUse plastic clips, not nails, to hang lights so the cords are not damaged.

Once you've decked the halls, apply the same fire safety awareness to preparations for the holiday meal. According to the USFA, cooking fires are the leading cause of residential blazes during the month of December. Never leave items unattended on the stove and be extremely careful with towels and oven mitts near open flames.

The holidays can get a bit chaotic, but take time to think about fire safety before and during celebrations. An extra moment of attention is all it takes to keep the season eaceful and ensure the only fire experienced is the one that's burning safely in the fireplace.

(Tracey Russell writes for the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.)