Holiday candles: Enjoy them, but please be careful

Editorís note: Mark Moorehead, a resident of Pecan Grove Estates, is an insurance adjuster who writes regularly for Wrangler News. In this column he describes how a burning candle destroyed a Valley home, and what you can do to prevent the same kind of tragedy.

By Mark Moorehead

Think about the holidays, and candles surely come to mind. Itís the time of year families light colorful candles in all shapes, sizes and scents. Candles are festive. They create a pleasant mood, add a touch of warmth and provide a peaceful glow.

Over the past 10 years, candles have become more popular than ever. According to the National Candle Association, an estimated $2.3 billion worth of their membersí products are purchased annually in the United States. Thatís a lot of wax in the age of electricity.

Unfortunately, however, the number of residential candle fires has increased in proportion to candle sales. In the last 20 years candle fires have risen 750 percent, accounting for more than 13,000 house fires each year.

And, this does not include thousands of homes that suffer a more insidious form of damage from the accumulation of candle smoke.

Most candle fires occur when candles are left unattended and close to combustible materials such as draperies, window blinds, holiday cards, decorations and table cloths.

Another contributing factor is pets and small children. Flaming candles are an attractive nuisance to dogs, cats and little kids. Children canít resist the urge to play with or near them.

As a property insurance investigator, I was recently involved in an investigation of a fire that completely destroyed a Valley home. It turns out a small dog was the culprit. The homeowner was reading a book in the family room. Next to her was an end table with a large scented candle. The innocuous flame on the candle was small and far away from anything flammable.

Reading caused the homeís occupant to become tired, and she decided to take a short afternoon nap in the bedroom.

Unfortunately, dogs are as curious as children when it comes to candles, and the pup knocked the candle on the floor while the woman slept.

Less than 30 minutes later, the dog tugged at the womanís sleeve to wake her up. By that time the family room was engulfed in flames and the house filled with smoke. There was no time to save a single item from a lifetime of possessions--except a cell phone she grabbed to dial 911 before racing out of the home.

The homeowners survived, but their lives will be changed forever. Exercising ďcandle careĒ by simply extinguishing the candle flame before leaving the room would have prevented the tragic lesson.

Although using common sense about candles indeed can prevent fires and saves lives, thereís still the possibility of non-life-threatening damage to the interior of the home from candle smoke.

Not all candles are created equal. Some give off a steady, thin wisp of black smoke that slowly accumulates on the surfaces of a home until it becomes obvious to the naked eye.

The smoke outlines the wood framing members behind the drywall in a grid-like pattern, which is great if you always wanted to know where to hang pictures, but bad if you just spent several thousand dollars painting the interior of your home.

Oddly enough, black candle smoke gravitates to the portion of the ceiling or wall where the ceiling joists or wall studs are located.

This happens because wood framing is dense and retains more heat in a warm room than the less dense, cooler drywall.

In short, if youíre able to see the skeletal framework of your family room itís time to throw out those smoky candles and call your interior decorator.

Fortunately, thereís an easy method for determining whether or not you have a candle that will cost you a new paint job.

After a candle is lit, if it continues to give off smoke, consider blowing it out--for good. A candle should give off smoke immediately after it is extinguished, not while itís burning.

Keep in mind that a single candle flame producing a smoke trail does not translate into a major clean up problem.

However, if you have a half dozen of the same candles burning at the same time, or you burn those same candles day after day, you might see a change in the color scheme of your favorite room the next day. Itís amazing what a few bad candles can do.

This doesnít mean you should throw out all your candles. A candle in the dark during a power failure is a good thing. Just donít leave it alone.