Frying double-digit pounds of poultry, stringing lights across drying tree branches and joining throngs of card-swiping customers has become as much a part of holiday tradition as parades and fruitcake.

But public safety officials and doctors warn local residents to take extra caution to stay safe this time of year.

Officials with the St. Johns Fire District urge residents to create a "safe zone" of at least 3 feet around the cooking area on Thanksgiving.

If a fire ignites, turn off the heat and leave the pan on the stove to avoid burns, or leave the oven door shut to keep the heat contained.

Firefighters also warn people not to use water to extinguish an oil or grease fire, since water only spreads the flames. Residents frying turkeys should keep a fire extinguisher close by and not cook their birds in garages, on decks or near vinyl siding.

Dr. Fred Mullins, chief executive of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., said burn accidents spike every Thanksgiving -- related mostly to turkey-frying accidents.

One of the reasons? People try to fry frozen turkeys.

"They go off like a bomb if they're not defrosted," said Mullins, whose hospital is the primary burn center for South Carolina.

Mullins, who practices once a week at Trident Medical Center in North Charleston, said frying accidents happen when cooks begin "enjoying holiday spirits a little too much and knock the fryer over."

Bob Behanian, a spokesman for Trident Medical Center, was more direct.

"People start drinking while they're cooking and don't know what's going on," he said. "They think you can just drop the turkey in there."

Mullins expects the burn clinic will handle at least a dozen cooking accidents today and tomorrow.

He offered some advice:

When Black Friday rolls around, Charleston police plan to station extra officers around shopping and banking centers, said crime prevention Sgt. Trevor Shelor.

He cautioned people to watch out for scammers who use busy shopping days to prey on distracted customers.

"We can't be everywhere all at once, so the community should be looking out for themselves and for other people," Shelor said. "Don't be so obsessed with what the kids are wearing with Santa that you're not aware of your surroundings."

Shelor pointed out some commonsense tips: Keep purses shut and on short straps, guard new purchases, keep cars locked and put valuables and presents in the trunk or a covered space.

"If you leave a brand-new iPad box in the back seat, it won't be there when you get back," he said.

Shelor said that children should learn their parents' cell phone numbers in case they become separated while shopping.

He also said parents should teach kids to stand in one place and to look around calmly, rather than wandering stores on their own.

Shelor encouraged residents to write down serial numbers for all electronics they purchase and to engrave personal markings on items.

That way, if a thief tries to pawn stolen goods, detectives can track down both the culprit and the victim.

"You get your things back, and someone gets put in jail," Shelor said.

He warned people that theft can happen at shopping centers, through car break-ins and even in home burglaries. Empty boxes left on the curbs advertise to potential burglars the shiny new gifts are inside a home.

Anyone who returns home to evidence of a break-in should not go inside, Shelor said, but call police from a neighbor's home instead.

While they travel, residents should use light timers and ask neighbors to bring in newspapers and mail to make their homes look occupied, Shelor said.

"A whole lot of people are gone over Thanksgiving," he said. "And it's an easy place for burglars to have luck."

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or on Twitter at @allysonjbird. Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550.