SAYREVILLE — Within 20 seconds of the first sign of smoke, a bright orange fire was raging.

Nearly 30 seconds later, temperatures reached about 1,000 degrees.

And within a minute, flames began to roll out, consuming nearly everything in the room, including the smoke alarm.

Definitely not the ideal way to dispose of your Christmas tree.

During a demonstration Tuesday at the Middlesex County Fire Academy, officials set fire to a pair of Christmas trees — one in a room equipped with sprinklers, and the other in a room without — to show how the joyous holiday season can turn into a nightmare in a matter of minutes.

"Trees catch fire very quick, very easily, they're extremely flammable," said David Kurasz, executive director of the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board. "It's a real risk that the general public needs to be aware of."

In recent years, the nation has seen more than 200 fires annually caused by a Christmas tree or faulty holiday lighting. One out of every 34 reported home fires that began with a Christmas tree resulted in death, compared to one death per 142 fires overall.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, who was on hand for the event, said residents interested in bringing a live tree into their home should wait a while before making the purchase. It's recommended that trees not be left up any longer than two weeks.

In the side-by-side demonstration, a fire inside the unit equipped with sprinklers was doused and put out within a minute, and the unit suffered minimal damage. On the other side, with no sprinklers, the entire unit was charred, and it was estimated that the "homeowners" wouldn't be allowed back home for six months to three years. On-site firefighters used hoses to put out the flames.

Kurasz noted New Jersey code does not require the installation of sprinklers in houses. The cost of sprinklers in a new-construction home is about $2 per square foot.

Wisniewski and local fire officials offer the following tips to help families substantially reduce the risk of fire through the end of the holiday season:

  • An artificial tree should be flame retardant. Real evergreens should be fresh when purchased. If needles are brittle or easily shed, move on to the next tree.
  • When setting up a tree inside the home, keep it at least three feet away from any heat source (fireplace, radiators, vents and lighting).
  • Tree stands should be filled with water at all times.
  • Avoid stringing together too many strands of lights when decorating the tree.
  • When dismantling a tree, it should be discarded immediately. Highly flammable, the tree should not be left in a garage or on a porch.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.