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Sure, fragrant candles smell nice and create ambiance, but an unattended candle can be a disaster waiting to happen.

Mike Rugh, a Pennsylvania state police fire marshal, said the top three causes of house fires are - in no particular order - candles, careless smoking and electrical issues.

In most cases, house fires caused by candles are the result of carelessness.

Sometimes, Rugh said, fires are caused by the fact that many people believe candles are safe.

In particular, jar candles, which are set in a glass container resembling a jar, give a "false sense of security," Rugh said.

"People think they're foolproof because they're in glass," he said.

However, as the wax burns off, the wick can get close to the glass, heating it up. That can then cause the glass to fail and explode, allowing the flaming wick to set off a much larger blaze.

"You're subjecting an open flame to glass. It's not going to work," Rugh said.

Candles set in a tin container can also be dangerous, he added. As the candle burns down, it heats up the tin. That can cause whatever it's sitting on to catch fire.

Peak month

On Sunday, a house fire in Shippensburg was blamed on a jar candle that failed.

The candle, which was in a second-floor bathroom, said Chief Clyde Tinner of the Vigilant Hose Co., burned down to nearly the bottom. Heat from the flame affected the glass, causing it break. That in turn sent the flaming wick into nearby items, catching them on fire.

The fire eventually spread to a bedroom and to the attic, Tinner said. No one was injured in the blaze, he added, but a family of four was displaced.

It was the second fire in the borough caused by a candle in two years, Tinner said.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, between 2003 and 2007, an estimated average of 15,260 house fires were started by candles each year.

Those fires caused an annual average of 166 civilian deaths, 1,289 civilian fire injuries and $450 million in property damage.

December is the peak month for candle fires, the NFPA says. The top five days for house fires caused by candles were Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year's Day, Halloween and Dec. 23.

Rugh encourages people to install working smoke alarms in their homes just in case a fire does break out. Many fire departments, including Union Fire Co. in Carlisle, offer free detectors.

Shawn Brickner, chief of the North Middleton Township Fire Co., advises those who burn jar candles to put them in a ceramic container so that if the glass does explode, the wick and wax will be contained.

When placing a candle somewhere to be burned, Rugh said, make sure it's away from drafts that could fan the flame or cause a curtain to blow over top of it. Also, he added, make sure children or pets can't knock the candle over.

"The A-number one thing is never burn a candle unless you're in the room with it," Rugh said.