COLUMN: Where there are smokers, there’s sometimes fire

Careless disposal of cigarettes always a problem, right now it has potential to be tragic

off topic

A big bag of butts.

That’s what a resident of the eastern Fraser Valley who regularly walks along Chilliwack Lake Road, collected earlier this summer – both from the road itself and the parched grass-filled ditches alongside it.

Sue Abegg told PAN’s sister paper, the Chilliwack Progress, that she picked up and bagged around 90 discarded cigarette butts as she walked a section of the route in late June, on one of the warmest days so far of an exceptionally hot and dry year. She returned after the July long weekend and gathered 140 more.

The careless tossing of the butts is, as Abegg noted, terribly dangerous. I’d add that it’s also a little disgusting.

Handling something coated in someone else’s saliva is unappealing at the best of times, but during global pandemic it’s far more off-putting.

There are, of course, gloves and litter pickers to lessen the ick factor. But the real issue, of course, is the potential each smoldering paper tube has to set the surrounding forest ablaze and do untold damage to both the natural and human environments.

This particular collection was gathered near Chilliwack, but if a person were inclined to look, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to find as many anywhere – including here in South Surrey and White Rock.

Between the lack of rain, soaring temperatures and associated lightning strikes, Mother Nature doesn’t need our help to gut forests and reduce grasslands to ash.

But she’s getting it, nonetheless.

While there has been no definitive cause named for the brush fire that broke out in a median at Willowbrook mall in Langley on July 21, it should come as no surprise to learn that among the ashes, crews discovered a discarded cigarette. Tossed butts are also blamed for a pair of recent fires in Stanley Park.

Large swaths of forest and grassland are burning all over the province and it seems likely we’ll learn that some of these, at least, are human-caused.

Smokers are an easy target for our ire. Theirs is a stinky habit that affects everyone within sniffing distance.

But, like any addiction, I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult to be a slave to cravings for something that you know, at worst, is likely to kill you and, at best, can make you a bit of a social pariah.

For that, I do have sympathy. But it isn’t a licence to litter, nor does it give people the right to put others’ lives and property at risk.

Eventually, it’s going to rain and the discarded cigarettes that fortunately didn’t torch their immediate surroundings or get scooped up by a passing street sweeper will likely get washed into a storm drain and be carried along to fish-bearing waters where they will continue to poison and pollute.

As with the gloves, this problem also has a pretty simple solution: pocket ashtrays. These clever little tools are widely available in a range of materials and prices. But for someone willing to pay more than $120 for a carton of smokes, cost really shouldn’t be a factor.

In the grand scheme of things these days, this may seem like a relatively small bone to pick. And in a sense it is.

Yet it’s also a symptom of a much broader problem – a growing sense of selfishness.

Whether it’s failing to pick up after a pooch or dumping massive piles of household trash at the side of the road rather than pay to dispose of it properly, the evidence of certain folks’ lack of consideration for others is all around us.

Of course, it is by no means every smoker who is to blame, but to the ones who continue to flick butts out the windows of their vehicles or casually drop and grind them under a heel, the world continues to be their ashtray.

While there’s a general unpleasantness to encountering others’ refuse at any time, right now it’s the careless disposal of cigarettes that has the potential to do the most serious and lasting damage.

No ifs, ands or butts.

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.

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