Don’t let the festival of lights become a tragedy of fire.
That’s the message being sent by the Orthodox Union. The OU has distributed guidelines for safe candle lighting and has declared December to be OU Fire Safety Month.
“We want to protect our families,” said Frank Buchweitz, OU national director of community services and special projects. “Chanukah presents us with the opportunity to sensitize the community to dangers associated with use of fire in many of our observances.”
Locally, James Kirsch is a lieutenant in the Bergenfield fire department and vice president of the Bergen County Fire Chiefs Association.
His most urgent piece of advice: “Never leave candles unattended, because if they do fall over and you’re not watching them, the fire grows so quickly, you’re going to have a problem on your hands,” he said.
The warning echoes that found in guidelines offered by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the OU’s arbiter of halachah, or Jewish law.
“If one is not going to be home while the Chanukah candles are lit, it is better that they not be lit, but one can light later in the evening if they will be home,” said Schachter in a statement released by the OU. “There should always be someone watching or near the candles. In terms of using an electric menorah, you shouldn’t say a b’rachah (blessing) on it, although you are able to say a b’rachah on electric (incandescent) lights for Shabbat and Yom Tov candles. When lighting in a hotel room, one should make sure he has half an hour to let the candles burn, and then blow them out when he has to leave.”
Kirsch said that he has responded to a couple of small Chanukah fires over the years.
“Minor stuff. Candles had fallen over, or a bit of smoke had occurred and set some alarms off,” he said. But he recalled “a relatively major house fire in Tenafly, about 10 years ago,” in which he was not directly involved.
He recommended that households not wait until the last minute to check their fire extinguishers, to allow time to buy a new one. They also need to ensure that the pressure is full (it can leak even if not being used) and that they know how to use it.
In Kirsch’s household, “We keep a pitcher of water on the table where the candles are. It doesn’t look out of place, and if a fire starts, we can quickly throw water to put it out.”
He cautions that you should only attempt to extinguish small fires.
“Sometimes, the best thing is to not even make that attempt but to call 911 from outside the house,” he said. “We don’t want to see anyone get injured trying to put a fire out.”
In his family’s Chanukah celebrations, “We usually have multiple menorahs up – chanukiyahs,” he said, using the technical term in deference to his wife, a Hebrew school teacher at Temple Emeth. “We try to make sure it’s on a flat, fire-resistant base, cookie sheets or something like that, so if something falls over, it’s not on a tablecloth and doesn’t start a fire.”