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Why You Probably Shouldn’t Burn Christmas Gift Wrap on Christmas Morning

December 21, 2011

You may have heard fire officials warning you to never burn Christmas gift wrap in your fireplace or woodstove after Christmas festivities.  People often ask why.  My experience is that some fire professionals don’t know for sure why they’re saying that.  Let’s take a look at the facts.

An important aspect of how solid fuels behave is surface area to mass ratio.  The more surface area you provide for a pound of fuel, the easier it is to get ignited, the quicker it will burn, and the faster it will reach the maximum heat release rate.  So how do you increase surface area?  With firewood, we cut and split it.  No one tries to burn an entire log for firewood.  It’s too hard to get it started.  By cutting and splitting it that single log gets much greater surface area and it’s easier to burn.  However, it’s still hard to light.  So we split it into even small pieces called ‘kindling’ so it’s easier to light.  All we’re doing is creating more surface area for that log so that it burns easier.

The same principle is at work with Christmas gift wrap.  Paper is made up of wood.  Paper represents just about the highest surface area to mass ratio you can provide for that log.  So it will ignite much quicker, burn faster, and reach maximum heat release rate quicker.

Another player is fuel moisture.  Paper has very little fuel moisture compared to firewood.  That also helps paper burn much faster.

So what’s the problem?  Paper and firewood are made from the same material and my fireplace was built to burn this stuff, right?  In fact, we all use some paper to ignite the fire in the first place.  That’s all true.  It’s the speed with which a large amount of paper reaches maximum temperature that gets fire professionals queasy.  Designers build their products for a specific use.  In this case your wood stove was designed for burning firewood (and starting the fire with a small amount of paper).  Under those circumstances there is a very predictable time/temperature curve that your fireplace or wood stove will follow.  While Christmas gift wrap is made of the same wood cellulosic fibers, the surface area to mass ratio and low moisture content make gift wrap burn much differently than what your fireplace was designed for.  Heating your system that quickly makes designers worried because they didn’t design it for that time/temperature curve and they’re not entirely sure all of the components will stand up to that rapid level of heating.

So, your fireplace or wood stove might withstand burning a full load of Christmas gift wrap with no problems . . . or it might fail and lead to a structure fire.  How do you tell for sure?  You can’t.  (Neither can I.)  Many people take the gamble and get away with it.  Many people take the gamble and don’t get away with it.  So the prudent homeowner doesn’t take the chance with his investment and uses the garbage can to dispose of Christmas gift wrap just to be on the safe side.

It’s one more thing you can do to ensure your Christmas party doesn’t get crashed by a bunch of firefighters.  We hire nice people, but trust me; you do not want us in your living room this Christmas.

All of us at Spokane County Fire District 9 wish you a merry Christmas and hope you get to enjoy it with your family!

If you’ve got questions about fire safety, post them here, or e-mail us at dbleeker@scfd9.org or call 509-466-4602.

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From → Fire Prevention

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