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.