Editorial: Penalties alone not a deterrent

Imposing tougher penalties for people who start wildfires is appropriate but will not necessarily be effective. The deterrent effect of a penalty comes not from its severity, but from the likelihood of getting caught. Any increase in penalties is doomed without a proportional increase in enforcement.

The B.C. government is looking into increasing the severity of punishments for those found responsible for wildfires, including impounding the vehicles of people who flick cigarette butts out their car windows.

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“There are some who suggest that you can’t legislate against stupidity,” said Forests Minister Steve Thomson. “But if exploring the idea of increasing fines or acting on ideas that mean more people will get the message, I think we should be prepared to have a look at it.”

The careless tossing of a burning cigarette butt is a seemingly small act, done without much forethought, but it can have huge consequences.

Take, for example, the McClure-Barriere wildfire in B.C.’s North Thompson Valley in 2003. A man working in his yard — a member of the local volunteer fire department — unthinkingly tossed a cigarette butt into tinder-dry pine needles. The resulting fire burned for 75 days, destroying 26,000 hectares of forest, 72 homes and nine businesses, with property damage surpassing $8 million. The cost of fighting the fire was $31 million, and 3,800 people had to leave their homes in three communities.

It’s not hard to imagine a fire in the Greater Victoria region causing even more damage, considering the concentration of people and structures in the area. There are many places along the Trans-Canada Highway, the Pat Bay Highway or Sooke Road where a discarded cigarette butt could be fanned into flames with dire consequences.

The man who started the McClure-Barriere fire readily and remorsefully admitted his mistake and was fined $3,000. That’s a pittance compared to the damage caused, but a heavier penalty would not have brought back the trees or buildings lost in the blaze. And there would have been little point in trying to send a stern message to a person already devastated by what he had done.

While there might be something grimly satisfying about coming down hard on miscreants, it’s a hollow sort of satisfaction. It’s far more useful to send a message that would prevent such disasters. The success of that message would depend on the certainty of getting caught.

When B.C. toughened its drunk-driving laws, incidences of impaired driving declined measurably, even to the point where owners of restaurants and drinking spots have complained about losing liquor business. Check stops and other enforcement measures sent the message that chances were good drivers would get caught if they had too much to drink.

No matter how stiff the penalty, a cigarette-tosser knows there is little chance of being caught or convicted. Short of banning smoking while driving, there’s little legislation can do to prevent the unsafe and surreptitious disposal of cigarette butts.

It’s illegal to use a handheld cellphone while driving, and stiffer penalties are being considered for that offence, yet anyone who drives regularly on the region’s roads knows too many people still haven’t got the message.

Make the punishments harsher, by all means, but don’t expect much to change unless the means are provided to increase enforcement and the likelihood of nabbing the offenders.

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