Christmas tree catches fire; townhomes burned

December 27, 2011 3:04:45 PM PST
A dried up Christmas tree too close to a burning fireplace. That's what's being blamed for a fire that destroyed two west Houston townhomes on Tuesday morning.

It happened at the townhomes at Litchfield and Memorial. Ironically, today is the first day that the city's recycling centers will be accepting old Christmas trees.

Houston fire officials tell me the Christmas tree in that fire was over 30 days old and had dried out. When your tree hits that stage, officials say it's safest at a recycling center.

This is where Janet Steinmetz wanted to take her Christmas tree today. But after a month in her home, she had another concern about her tree.

"Fire. And the Litchfield apartment fire was because of a Christmas tree," said Steinmetz.

There's not much left of the home destroyed Monday night by fire.

"My kids yelled, 'Fire,'" said the homeowner, Jack Perry.

He says he was packing for a family camping trip, and saw a spark from the fireplace jump onto the Christmas tree. In a matter of seconds, he was frantic to get his family out.

"You couldn't stop it. The wire around it was on fire. It was like the tree was alive. It burned up and went to the ceiling," said Perry.

Luckily, the Perry family got out OK. Firefighters say the tree was too close to the fireplace and, after a month in the house, was dried and a fire hazard.

There are certain signs your tree has become a danger to your home.

"You have to make some inspections. When you get the tree, you have to study those pine needles -- are they dry? Are they brown? Are they falling off? If they are, it's time to get rid of that tree because at that point it becomes a hazard," said Capt. Ruy Lozano with the Houston Fire Department.

There are several places all over Houston to take your Christmas tree. There is no charge and neighbors like Steinmetz consider it a safe alternative, especially after what happened to the Perry's home.

"It added to my resolve that we're going to get it out, plus he's home with his truck so that makes it easy," said Steinmetz.

The city has these recycling centers all over Houston and you can click on this link for a list of locations and a map.

Earlier Tuesday: Neighbors save residents from burning townhomes

Neighbors jumped into action to rescue trapped families who could only watch as the flames consumed their homes. Several families were sifting through what's left of their homes after a fire destroyed nearly everything they owned.

The fire started just before 10pm at townhomes on Litchfield and Memorial. Firefighters spent 12 hours fighting the fire, putting out hotspots and digging through the debris to get the smoke and embers out. The challenge grew by the minute as the framing of the building began to crumble.

"I heard screaming and I saw fire erupting from the house and I ran over as fast as I could and I called 9-1-1," said neighbor Michael Murphey.

"There were flames just leaping off the far patio," said another neighbor.

"Last night, a Christmas tree caught on fire and it went up in flames," said another.

Flames danced over four townhome units at Ethan's Glen, a 32-acre wooded development in west Houston.

"One of our concerns is always if one of the trees is gonna go up," said neighbor Amy Smith. "Thank God we've had so much rain for the past few days. I think that probably helped."

For hours overnight and well into today, fire crews quashed flames and quieted hot spots.

"The floors even burned through and the building was starting to sag and collapse," said Capt. Thomas Dillion with the Houston Fire Department.

Luckily, the fire didn't spread to the trees, but two homes are damaged and two others were destroyed, including Jack Perry's home, where it all began.

Perry's wife grabbed their two kids and rushed out of the house while he stayed behind and tried to fight it. His right cheek is now burned from the heat.

"I tried to go upstairs to save what I could and I started inhaling smoke and then I got out of there," he said.

Thanks to the some of the neighbors, everyone got out OK. Perry and his family are now staying with relatives.

The cause of this fire is still under investigation.

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