Cig­a­rettes spark rise in ur­ban blazes

Condo-heavy ar­eas at high risk for fires started by care­less smok­ers


ED­MON­TON— It was 7 a.m. on July 29, the mid­sum­mer sun al­most fully risen, when An­thony Coul­ston turned his white hatch­back onto 115 St. in south Ed­mon­ton. He was look­ing for­ward to get­ting some sleep at home af­ter a night out with friends.

Then, bleary-eyed, he saw two fire trucks parked in front of his apart­ment, fire­fight­ers on ex­tended lad­ders hos­ing the last re­mains of a mas­sive fire.

Shock and dis­be­lief turned to panic as he parked his car and raced for the fence. As fire­fight­ers yelled at him to stay away, his thoughts turned first to the safe where he kept his money and, se­condly, to the only baby pho­tos of his four young chil­dren.

Fire­fight­ers di­rected him across the street to a soc­cer field at St. Teresa Catholic School, where the Red Cross had set up sup­plies for 30 peo­ple dis­placed by the fire. Coul­ston col­lected a voucher for a three-day stay at the Holiday Inn and $140 voucher to buy some clothes.

He fi­nally fell, fully dressed, into a ho­tel bed at 10 a.m.

All this dev­as­ta­tion and anx­i­ety came about be­cause of one care­less mis­take: A smoker con­fessed to putting out a butt in a pot on a fourth-floor bal­cony of Coul­ston’s build­ing.

Fires started by smok­ing ma­te­ri­als such as cig­a­rettes and cigars are an emerg­ing con­cern for lo­cal fire de­part­ments across Canada, es­pe­cially in hot hous­ing mar­kets where con­dos are crop­ping up as an af­ford­able al­ter­na­tive to home own­er­ship.

Smok­ers, out of cour­tesy or so­cial ex­clu­sion, of­ten head out­doors to light up on bal­conies or wooden decks. A flower pot or planter makes an invit­ing ash­tray. But when the pot­ting soil is dry and the tem­per­a­ture is hot, a cig­a­rette butt can act like a match and a bal­cony or deck as a tin­der­box.

“Per­haps res­i­dents don’t smoke, but they have guests. And the guests, to be cour­te­ous, they go out and smoke. But be­cause there are no reg­u­lar smok­ers there, there is no ap­pro­pri­ate re­cep­ta­cle,” said Ca­role Henke, pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer at Cal­gary Fire Depart­ment. “Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the risk as­so­ci­ated with putting a cig­a­rette butt into the soil.”

The fire in Coul­ston’s build­ing was just one of 54 smok­ing-re­lated res­i­den­tial fires recorded in Ed­mon­ton as of Aug. 1. In to­tal, they caused more than $19 mil­lion in prop­erty dam­age.

The num­bers show sim­i­lar sce­nar­ios have been un­fold­ing in condo-heavy Van­cou­ver, Cal­gary and Toronto.

Van­cou­ver had 90 smok­ingre­lated fires in 2015. By 2017, that had jumped to 120.

Though most fire de­part­ments don’t have statis­tics on how many of those fires oc­curred on bal­conies or were caused by smoul­der­ing butts ig­nit­ing dry soil in pots or planters, in Toronto, the num­bers were alarm­ing enough that the fire depart­ment started to track them.

In 2017, the Toronto Fire Depart­ment recorded 51 fires that started on bal­conies out of 114 smok­ing-re­lated fires. As of Aug. 7 of this year, of 54 smok­ing-re­lated fires, 25 have been on bal­conies.

Larry Cocco, divi­sion chief of fire in­ves­ti­ga­tions for the Toronto Fire Ser­vices, paints an­other pic­ture: Peo­ple throw cig­a­rettes off of bal­conies as­sum­ing they will end up on the street be­low. But that’s not al­ways the case.

“The wind can take the cig­a­rette and (make it) land on an­other bal­cony,” he said. “And a lot of peo­ple have cush­ioned chairs on their bal­conies for com­fort … or it can land on an­other pot­ted plant to cre­ate (a fire).”

Vladimir Ch­lis­tovsky, na­tional pres­i­dent of the Canadian As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire In­ves­ti­ga­tors, said an­other fac­tor is flammable fur­ni­ture ma­te­ri­als.

“These days mod­ern fur­ni­ture is mostly pe­tro­leum foams, and that makes fur­ni­ture very com­bustible, much more com­bustible than 50 years ago when smok­ing was more preva­lent,” he said. “That is why we may see more dam­age these days from fires that are caused by smok­ing.”

Coul­ston is frus­trated that the fire that de­stroyed his apart­ment build­ing started with a cig­a­rette put out in a pot­ted plant.

“There are ac­tu­ally signs on all the doors of our build­ing. They are try­ing to ed­u­cate peo­ple to not put the cig­a­rette butts in pot­ted plants. So who­ever did this would have to have walked past the signs, and they still chose to do this. It’s kind of un­be­liev­able.”

The other prob­lem is that a lot of pot­ting soils con­tain peat moss, which is highly flammable when dry, said Sarah Hir­tle, green­house su­per­vi­sor and hor­ti­cul­tur­ist at the Univer­sity of Al­berta.

“An­other com­po­nent that can play a part in start­ing fires is the dead plant ma­te­rial (leaves or flow­ers) that falls off and re­mains on top of the soil,” she said.

Once a smoul­der­ing cig­a­rette gets ig­nited enough to touch the dried ma­te­rial, it’s only a mat­ter of min­utes be­fore the whole pot ig­nites, “which is then en­cour­aged to burn as the plas­tic pot melts.”

With cannabis’s le­gal­iza­tion date looming, a num­ber of fire de­part­ments across Canada are con­sid­er­ing fire safety re­lat­ing to mar­i­juana joints, with some, in­clud­ing Ed­mon­ton, ex­pect­ing an in­crease in in­ci­dents.

Cocco is not too con­cerned about cannabis be­cause he said pre­lim­i­nary fire science shows joints are much more dif­fi­cult to light and, with­out con­stant puff­ing, tend to go out. This is sup­ported by a 2014 study by the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire In­ves­ti­ga­tors that per­formed 244 in­di­vid­ual tests with 10 dif­fer­ent types of rolling pa­pers as well as empty cig­a­rette tubes used to smoke mar­i­juana.

Cannabis le­gal­iza­tion may also have a sil­ver lin­ing for the fire de­part­ments bat­tling cig­a­rette blazes on bal­conies, as condo boards and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties con­sider smok­ing bans on bal­conies as a way to limit pot use. Zachary Dol­man, owner of a condo in the west end of Ed­mon­ton, is a smoker him­self but sup­ports his condo board’s right to out­law smok­ing.

“Over­all, I think it’s a good idea for boards to at least sit down and dis­cuss whether they want to be proac­tive about this or whether they want — for the lack of a bet­ter term — to let the in­mates run the asy­lum,” he said.

As for Coul­ston, he has been stay­ing with a friend since the fire, un­sure if he’ll ever get to go home. On Aug. 10, he re­turned to his build­ing. It was still stand­ing — with a gap­ing hole in the cen­tre of the build­ing where the roof used to be.

“It was all kind of black and looked like there had been a cou­ple feet of wa­ter in my unit,” he said. He found things strewn across his apart­ment as if they had been float­ing around and then found a ran­dom spot to land. “There were shoes ev­ery­where.”

There was no fire dam­age, and the money was safe and sound. But the wa­ter had de­stroyed all the pho­tos of his four kids and all the arts and crafts they had made for him — the “ir­re­place­able stuff,” he said. “It was pretty heart­break­ing.”

“Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the risk as­so­ci­ated with putting a cig­a­rette butt into the soil.” CA­ROLE HENKE CAL­GARY FIRE DEPART­MENT


Ed­mon­ton res­i­dent An­thony Coul­ston lost fam­ily pho­tos and his chil­dren’s art­work af­ter a blaze ig­nited by a cig­a­rette put out in a pot­ted plant gut­ted his build­ing.

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