Cottage Q&A: How many wildfires do cigarettes cause?

A smouldering cigarette on a pile of dry leaves By Thichaa/Shutterstock

This summer, near our cottage, there were a few fires where cigarette butts were deemed to be the cause. I’m concerned that some people on our lake don’t understand the dangers of improper cigarette butt disposal. How should people be disposing of used cigarettes at the lake, where the vegetation can get tinder-dry in the summer?—Jolene Macfarlane, via email 

You have a valid concern. Cigarettes don’t account for the majority of fires, but they certainly account for some of them. In the summer of 2019, for example, seven Vancouver Island fires over the course of seven days were attributed to discarded cigarette butts. 

Part of the problem is that a butt can appear as if it’s extinguished, but if it lands on burnable material, it can still ignite. A stubbed-out cigarette that someone tosses from a car window, assuming it’ll land harmlessly on the pavement, could bounce, roll, and end up in vegetation growing on the side of the road. For obvious reasons, “the risk for a discarded cigarette to start a forest fire or a grass fire goes up when we haven’t had much precipitation, and the ground layer is more dry than normal,” says Michael Peake, the fire prevention officer for the town of Bracebridge, Ont. Certain plant material—such as dry peat moss—is particularly good at “insulating” the cigarette. “We’ve been to numerous fires caused by smokers’ materials extinguished in a planter containing dry peat moss,” says Peake. “We’ve seen peat moss insulate for seven hours before the cigarette started a fire.”

13 quick safety tips to prevent fires at the cottage

If you’re worried about forest fires in particular, the good (er, sort of) news is that stats show that cigarettes are not anywhere near the most common source of wildfires. In Canada, about 50 per cent of wildfires are caused by lightning strikes, says Mike Flannigan, the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta. The other 50 per cent are “human-caused”—for instance, campfires, ATV activity, burning debris, and in some cases, arson. 

Smokers have no control over lightning, or hot ATV tailpipes, or arsonists. They do have control over their butts. If you have cottage guests who smoke, discard their ashes and used cigarettes into a jar or a metal bucket with a lid, and keep it outside, says Peake. “The lid takes away the oxygen to the cigarette, putting it out almost instantly.” When it’s time to empty the bucket, wet the contents to make certain that everything is extinguished. “Then it should be safe for disposal in the garbage,” says Peake.

How to dispose of your fireplace ash

Time for a public service announcement! If a smoker is outside somewhere in the woods, with no ashtray, bucket, or jar, “I would suggest finding a puddle or a hard surface, like a rock, to extinguish the cigarette,” says Peake. “Ideally, detaching the filter and taking it back to a place where you can properly dispose of it is the best idea. Filters aren’t compostable and have plastics that will not degrade.” Never butt a cigarette on the forest floor, he says. “Dry needles, grass, and leaves may combust after you’ve left the area.” 

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