Fire chiefs call for crackdown on cigarette tossers as hazard rises

Any B.C. legislation that toughens penalties for people who throw lit cigarettes from vehicles should address more education along with more punishment, says the president of the B.C. Fire Chiefs Association.

Chief Tim Pley of Port Alberni said Monday that the “unprecedented” fire season in the province warrants government action, but “the goal should be compliance.” He feels awareness of the need to change behaviour, not just higher fines, should be part of the solution.

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His comments come in light of yet another human-caused brush fire, stopped close to two homes off Otter Point Road in Sooke on Sunday, forcing the evacuation of at least eight homes. It is an example of events that have created strong hints a crackdown on cigarette tossers who have ignited fires could be imminent with the call-back of the B.C. legislature on Sept. 28.

“We got the fire down just in time,” said Capt. John McCrea of the Otter Point Volunteer Fire Department. “It was probably about 100 feet from one house when we arrived and probably about 300 feet from another house, so there were two houses that were definitely threatened.”

Firefighters were called about 5 p.m. and remained on scene until about 10 p.m., responding from Otter Point, Sooke, Shirley, Metchosin and East Sooke.

McCrea noted that the fire-hazard rating remains extreme.

“Even though people see the temperatures cooling down a little bit, that just means the drying trend is slowing down. It is still getting drier every day.”

Lt. Mike Simpson of Saanich’s Fire Prevention Division said extreme weather conditions have been in effect earlier and longer than most years. Tossed cigarettes were blamed for mulch fires earlier in the season but beach fires are now the bigger concern.

The department relies on residents near beaches to call in when they see burning, which is common despite the ban on both beach and backyard fires.

“We do ask for the public to call in if they see [this] type of activity. We don’t have the manpower and the resources to patrol the beaches and see if there are fires.” The only kind of backyard fire allowed is in propane-based fire pits that do not give off sparks, he said.

“It’s tinder-dry and there’s not really an opportunity to make a mistake,” Simpson said.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson has appointed Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris, a former RCMP superintendent, to lead a review into fires caused by cigarettes and consider tougher penalties, including higher fines or impounding vehicles.

At this point, the province does not have an accurate breakdown of human-caused fires by specific activity, but of 1,753 fires so far this season, 1,210 have been caused by lightning and more than 500 caused by humans, said a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations on Monday.

“Firefighting costs to date this year are $233 million and total fires to date are 1,753. This compares to $229 million and 1,282 fires for the same time period (April 1 to Aug. 23) last year.” Last year was the third-worst season on record.

Pley said lit cigarettes tossed from vehicle windows are a problem, but buildings can catch fire when cigarettes are stubbed out in flower pots packed with combustible organic material. “Penalties alone may not be successful,” he said.

Pley said this year’s intense heat and dryness may not be a one-time aberration. The winter and next year are predicted to be just as bad, if not worse, given the “Godzilla El Niño” said to be on the way, something “pretty profound” to contemplate, he added.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

jwbell@timescolonist.com

 

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