Maybe a more appropriate title would be No Butts On The Balcony, but it’s not contained to apartment gardeners. House fires, including those at multiple unit buildings, caused by cigarette butts discarded in planters and flower pots is on the rise. This isn’t surprising given the sheer volume of people growing plants for vegetables, herbs, and flowers in containers these days no matter where they live.
Potting mix is highly flammable when dry, and it dries out quickly. Most potting mixes have peat moss and wood bark in them. Peat burns. The Irish use it in their fireplaces for heat like people in North America use wood. Once you light potting mix dry out completely, resaturating it is very difficult, and could be the reason that your have a hard time keeping plants from wilting even though you water them regularly. Because of this trait of the medium, you can water a pot a few hours before someone discards a smoldering butt in it and it can still catch on fire. If its hot out, they dry out even faster.
Smokers and potting soil don’t mix well at all. For some reason a container full of plants seems a good place to get rid of butts. No one really thinks about it being a fire hazard, especially if they don’t grow anything, and are clueless to what is really in that pot. To the unenlightened an instant connection between dirt and plants probably rushes to mind, which is the way it would be in the ground. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in a container. If the hots aren’t completely extinguished, the butt still gets some air and can smolder for hours before the potting mix bursts into flames. Plastic pots and even wooden planter boxes will not contain a fire even temporarily like a ceramic or clay pot would, but even those will break from the heat.
Then there is where we place pots on the porch, balcony, or deck. Out of the walkway – up against the house or railing, and if the railing is wood… it’s connected to the building.
In late June a pedestrian in Spokane, Washington noticed a porch he was passing had flames coming from something on it. The house was dark, so he investigated and discovered a planter of flowers was the host of the fire. The elderly resident had a guest earlier in the evening who put out a cigarette in the planter upon leaving. Not much damage was done, thanks to the fast thinking of the passer-by. Things didn’t go so well at another area home when an ashtray was emptied into a plant pot on the deck. The damage to the house was over $200,000 when it went up in flames.
A couple weeks ago a potting soil fire on the balcony of a Souix Falls, Iowa apartment cause over $1 million in damage before firefighters conquered the blaze. Last week in Kennewick, Washington a deck caught on fire, burned into the home and attic causing over $50,000 in damages, and a smoldering cigarette in a plastic plant container is the suspect point of ignition. In Purcellville, Virgina the sprinkler system on a third-floor balcony put out a fire caused by a cigarette in a flower pot before it spread beyond the one apartment.
These are just a few of the most recent news stories. Firefighters suggest that smokers be provided a metal or ceramic container filled with sand to dispose of their butts, or empty ashtrays in, and to douse the butt container with water to make sure they are out completely before leaving the outdoor space unattended. A plastic pot filled with potting mix is the worst thing you can toss together for a gathering if smokers will be there. Even if it’s not a party, all it takes is one butt and some dry media to cause a whole lot of damage, perhaps even leave you homeless – or worse.