Cozying up to a warm fireplace under a beautiful mantel decorated with greenery and candles can be a holiday nightmare if it all goes up in smoke.
"Dry, brittle greenery only needs one spark to go up in flames," said Kim Coder, a University of Georgia Extension Service forestry specialist. "Greenery, especially pine, dries extremely fast and becomes extremely flammable."
To make sure your holiday greenery is safe, Coder offers these simple tips:
* The key to keeping greenery safe is to replace it every week.
"Test the freshness by grabbing the needles," Coder said. "If the needles bend, they are still fresh. If they break or come off in your hand, they're too dry and should be exchanged for fresh greenery."
Make sure to discard dry greenery away from the house or garage to prevent a further fire hazard.
* Look for wreaths with fire-retardant coatings.
"You can buy a number of wreaths during the season made from natural products that are coated or treated, with silk flowers and decorations added," Coder said. "Remember that they, too, can be flammable. The plastic can melt and the core can catch fire -- not nearly as easily as pine needles, but it can happen."
* When cutting greenery from a live source, immediately dip the cut ends in wax or put them in a vase of water until ready to use.
"Treat it like fresh flowers," Coder advised. "Commercial sprays are available that won't make it fireproof but will make it much more fire-resistant."
Fire isn't the only hazard of bringing fresh greenery into the house.
"Mistletoe and holly with berries can be dangerous to children if they eat them," Coder warned. "Then there are vermin hiding in the foliage."
To rid greenery of unwanted pests, shake it vigorously, then look through the leaves or needles and remove any bugs or spiders you spot.
Mistletoe and holly can lose berries if you shake too hard, so look through it carefully for bugs before you bring it in.
"Once they get warm, the critters become very active," Coder said.
As the temperature dips at this time of year, remember that space heaters and dry greenery are a lethal mix.
"Always keep space heaters or any heat source pointed toward the center of the room and away from any greenery or a Christmas tree," Coder said.
The lure of the smell of fresh pine inside during the holidays sometimes can't be deterred. But on this holiday, take care to be safe.
"Be very fire-conscious when you bring the forest inside," Coder said. "Forests do burn from time to time, and you don't want that to happen inside your house."
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)