News, Culture & Society

Why you MUST scour your insurance small print this Christmas

The room in front of me has been decked out to look like any other living room at this time of year. 

Tinsel is hanging over picture frames on the wall, a festive throw is on the sofa and wrapped presents sit under the Christmas tree decorated with fairy lights and baubles.

But, in just a few minutes’ time, the entire room will be engulfed in flames.

Fortunately, this is not a living room in someone’s home: we are in one of the Fire Service College’s so-called ‘investigation boxes’.

Devastating: The test Christmas living room set up before and after the blaze, with reporter Fiona pictured in the aftermath

Devastating: The test Christmas living room set up before and after the blaze, with reporter Fiona pictured in the aftermath

Located in the small market town of Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, in the Cotswolds, the college’s 300-acre grounds are where trainee police and firefighters are taught how to manage incidents and gather evidence.

As we drove through the site, we passed a staged motorway pile-up and a derailed train.

The small cabin in which I’m standing has been the setting for a house fire more than 20 times in just two years.

Five tips to protect your home 

  1. Older Christmas trees that have dried out pose a greater fire risk. Check whether yours is fresh by tapping its trunk — if lots of needles fall, it was cut a good while ago.
  2. Dust that accumulates on old artificial trees can be highly flammable. Consider using a fire-retardant spray.
  3. Never hang stockings near a working fireplace and don’t put Christmas cards or decorations in front of heaters or lights.
  4. Be careful when buying electrical goods online. If they turn out to be counterfeit, they are unlikely to have passed vital health-and-safety tests.
  5. Turn off your TV and other electricals when you go out of the house, rather than leaving them on standby.

But, while this fire will be carefully supervised and quickly extinguished, this is sadly not always the case.

Every year, around 21,000 homeowners suffer damage caused by fires or explosions, with the festive period one of the worst times of the year for such insurance claims.

One in five of all house fires caused by candles occurs during December, according to exclusive research by Direct Line. Almost half of these happen between Christmas and New Year.

The candle positioned next to the Christmas tree in front of me is going to be the cause of this house fire, too — but it needs a little bit of help to get going.

Steve Skarratt, head of prevention and protection training at the Fire Service College, says: ‘The Christmas tree is a bit damp, as it has been outside at the garden centre.

‘But, if it had been inside a heated property for two weeks, it would be completely dried-out and easy to set alight.’

Josh Allaway, a 27-year-old chemist at the college, says: ‘Most people know petrol is flammable, but there are some flammable solvents, such as hairspray and WD-40, that people forget they have in their homes.’

So Steve hangs acetone-soaked Christmas stockings next to the candle by the tree. Acetone is a highly flammable chemical found in nail polish remover, another of those flammable solvents often found in the home.

Then Steve, in full fireman’s uniform, dips the stocking in the candle flame and drops it on to the Christmas tree.

Within seconds, the fire burns through the stocking and is climbing the tree.

Threat: Bad wiring and malfunctioning or overloaded electronics are one of the most common causes of fires

Threat: Bad wiring and malfunctioning or overloaded electronics are one of the most common causes of fires

I gasp as the flames jump to the nearby curtain and, within a minute, a picture frame falls from the wall. Soon, black smoke begins to fill the room, and we quickly retreat from the cabin as the television crashes to the floor. Next, the windows burst.

It’s hard to believe it’s been only eight minutes since the fire began, when retired firefighter Declan Patterson is finally given the go-ahead to put out the flames.

An hour later, we return to inspect the damage. All that remains is the sofa frame and the charred trunk of the Christmas tree.

While candles can certainly be dangerous, a large number of fires are caused by cooking, with some 14,964 out of a total 73,214 in 2018/2019 started this way, according to official figures.

Bad wiring and malfunctioning or overloaded electronics were the next most common cause of fires.

The average home insurance claim for a fire is around £20,000, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI).

It is vital to be accurate when estimating how much cover you need. If you underestimate, your payout might not cover your losses. Despite this, nearly two-thirds underestimate how much their possessions are worth, according to


Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.