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Candles put churchgoers in danger

Candles are the cause of a significant proportion of fires

(Keystone)

Christmas Eve in Swiss churches is synonymous with carols and candlelight, but concerns about fire safety are putting a dampener on this year's celebrations.

In this season of candle-related fires, fire experts have drawn attention to the fact that open flames are not allowed at public gatherings of more than 100 people.

Candles are most popular in the winter months, especially during Advent and at Christmas time. Swiss Christians traditionally decorate their Christmas trees at home with real candles, which are lit on the evening of December 24.

Trees in churches are also sometimes candle-lit – in defiance of the rules.

"We have to distinguish between the use of candles in normal ceremonies and Christmas trees," Robert Schmidli, director of the Swiss fire fighters association Swissfire, told swissinfo.

"From a safety point of view, it is right to ban candles on Christmas trees in churches."

"If you respect the safety guidelines, with a candle the danger is not so great. But safety has to be taken seriously, that means using a fresh tree and having the lit candles at a safe distance from the next branch," Schmidli added.

Whistleblowing

So what should a concerned parishioner do at the heart-warming sight of a candlelit tree? Kurt Steck of the Swiss Fire Prevention Office does not suggest calling the fire police on the spot.

"If you have concerns, talk to the minister to see whether the right safety measures have been taken."

Schmidli agrees that it is preferable to approach the priest first. "The best thing would be for those responsible for the church to notify the fire brigade in advance and to ask for two or three fire fighters to be present and oversee the lighting of the tree. That's something they would happily do," he said.

However, if the fire police are informed of a breach of fire regulations, they are obliged to act. Walter Donzé of the Protestant Party has called for a special exception permit to allow the tradition to continue.

"The authorities are acting more Catholic than the Pope," the politician was quoted as saying in a Swiss daily newspaper.

Although electric lights have become widely used, candles are still an integral part of Christmas celebrations and are the cause of some 1,000 fires every year in Switzerland, or one in 20 of all fires.

Lack of respect

Steck believes that with modern cooking and heating methods there is a general lack of familiarity with how to handle fire.

"In the past everyone had to have a good understanding and knowledge of fire. Nowadays people have less respect for fire and have to be reminded that candles are an open flame, which can ultimately produce temperatures high enough to burn everything flammable in the home," he warned.

The golden rule, Steck says, is never to leave a candle burning in an unoccupied room.

"If you don't blow out a candle before you leave a room, it can suddenly get to an uncontrollable situation where an unnoticed fire reaches a size that you cannot put out."

Children and fire are an infamous mix, but Steck advises against totally refusing children access to fire.

"It is better to teach children how to handle fire. This is not difficult, it just requires some instruction but young children have to be supervised in any case."

"A total ban on contact with fire will only have the effect of increasing the fascination and encouraging experimentation."

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea

Key facts

Switzerland has 1,900 professional fire fighters
The corps is back up by 112,000 volunteer fire fighters
The fire service is called out on average 64,000 times a year (23% are false alarms)
As well as responding to fires, the fire brigade also work on natural disasters, rescue operations and traffic accidents.
The emergency phone number for the fire service is 118

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Safety first

1. Make sure all candles have been extinguished before you leave the room.
2. Candles on advent wreaths and Christmas trees should be changed before they burn down too low.
3. There should be a clear safety space around the candle flame, allowing no possible contact with decorations or branches.
4. A heavy water-filled base will keep the tree stable and prevent it from drying out. The tree should be kept outside until Christmas Eve.
5. Keep a water-filled bucket and brush next to the tree or advent wreath. A small fire can be put out by spraying it heavily with the brush dipped in water.
6. In case of fire taking hold, call 118, clear the building of people and finally tackle the fire if possible.

(Swiss Fire Prevention Office)

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