The combination of kids running around, mom attempting recipes of deep-fried treats and dad trying to bring a cheerful glow to the home often amount to a disaster zone for pans spilling, wires sparking and candles falling.
According to a U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) study, national fire loss for December is estimated at $990 million across the United States annually. Each year, these losses result from an estimated 128,700 fires that required a fire department's direct response. These "December fires," as the local firefighters refer to them, cause an average of approximately 1,650 injuries and 415 fatalities.
The USFA cites cooking as the leading cause of residential building fires in December, accounting for 41 percent of all the blazes. The agency explains that "cooks in the kitchen may find themselves distracted with holiday guests, entertaining and last-minute details. Unfortunately, these distractions can turn into fire hazards all too quickly. Over half (54 percent) of December residential building cooking fires are the result of either the food or the equipment being left unattended."
These December fires also account for some of the most expensive and dangerous types of accidents, because they are often located at places and times where lots of people are congregated in the heart of the home. The USFA also notes that nationally "during this period, the daily number of residential structure fires caused by children playing fluctuates but remains around 40 per day" and increases throughout the holiday season as children are left unattended around candles.
But the Festival of Lights would be hard pressed to abandon the candles that so define the festival. Although Hillel and Shammai may have once disagreed on candle order and lighting direction, never did they consider abandoning the custom.
Candles, however, are what fire departments cite as being the catalyst for 3 percent of all residential building fires during the holidays. As the initial heat source in these cases, candles lead to residential building fires when they are left unattended or are lit next to flammable items. More candle-related fire incidents occur in December than in any other month.
Community members are becoming alarmed by these trends. The Orthodox Union (OU) was prompted to issue a statement concerning fire safety during Chanukah as part of its initiative, "Safe Homes, Safe Shuls, Safe Schools" program. Emanuel Adler, OU Synagogue and Community Services Commission chair, announced: "Any fire has the potential to do severe damage, but the pain increases when fire transforms a joyful holiday like Chanukah into a tragedy. Chanukah presents us with the opportunity to sensitize the community to dangers associated with use of fire in many of our observances."
At Wilshire Boulevard Temple's preschool, fire safety and stressing to children that candles are for grownups is an important component of teaching youngsters about the holiday, said Elizabeth Cobrin, an assistant teacher. As the teachers light the matches before saying the prayer, they say, "matches and fire are," and the kids scream back "hot, hot, hot," Cobrin said.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, associate director of OU's department of synagogue services, emphasizes: "It is incumbent upon parents to be aware of the environment surrounding the candles, as well as what their children and pets may be up to. It's always important to know what your children are doing, but it's absolutely imperative when you have half a dozen fully loaded menorahs blazing."
The Los Angeles Fire Department warns everyone to be aware of some basic safety precautions when using candles anytime of the year.