published Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Where there's smokes: Cigarette fires plague Chattanooga this year

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    Chattanooga firefighters work to extinguish a fire Tuesday at Mountain Creek Apartments. Eight fire companies responded to the fire and contained it to one end of the apartment building according to spokesperson Bruce Garner.
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Chattanooga fires caused by cigarettes and cigarette lighters in 2014:

Jan. 24: A smoldering cigarette butt caused a raging fire that displaced 75 people from the Carriage Parc apartments in East Brainerd.

April 1: An afternoon fire at Mountain Creek Apartments that displaced residents is traced to a cigarette. Eight companies of firefighters responded to the scene.

April 14: A fire at 3503 Hoyt St. caused $26,000 in damage. Investigators ruled the fire accidental, saying that a 7-year-old boy found a lighter and set linens on fire in a bedroom.

April 15: Cigarettes dumped in a trash bag on a woman's front porch in Lookout Valley started a blaze that caused $5,000 in damage.

April 19: Chattanooga firefighters were called to a mobile home where a child playing with a cigarette lighter started a fire in a bedroom. The damage estimate was $25,000.

Thursday: Firefighters rushed the Courts at Waterford, 6220 Shallowford Road, about 2:30 p.m. to battle a fire that started on the balcony of an apartment because of cigarette butts that were not properly extinguished.

With three residential fires since April 1 tied to cigarettes and another two started by cigarette lighters, Chattanooga fire officials have a message for smokers: Extinguish your smokes properly by wetting them and keep the lighters away from children.

"Especially here recently, the main cause is due to the improper disposal of the ashes and butts where they're just dumping it in the trash can with combustible products," said Chattanooga Fire Marshal Bill Matlock. "When you do that, you're just asking for trouble."

A Thursday afternoon fire at the Courts at Waterford on Shallowford Road is believed to have begun after residents discarded their cigarette butts into a plastic bag and placed the bag on the balcony of their apartment.

It is believed the butts smoldered and heated up enough in the bag to start the fire that spread to the exterior siding of the balcony.

The fire did an estimated $10,000 in damage.

While no serious injuries or deaths have been reported because of cigarette fires in Chattanooga this year, four residential fires have started because of cigarettes, not counting two caused in April by children playing with lighters.

Deputy Fire Marshal Seth Miller said eight fires in 2013 were confirmed to be the result of cigarettes and added that number could be higher because of some inconclusive investigations.

Nationally, the U.S. Fire Administration says smoking is the top cause of home and fire deaths and that, on average, 1,000 people die yearly in smoking-related home fires.

A Jan. 24 fire at Carriage Parc Apartments on Gunbarrel Road caused by a smoldering cigarette butt destroyed 12 units. Another 12 sustained water damage as firefighters battled the blaze.

That fire started in the middle of the night and displaced about 75 people. It took hours for crews to extinguish. Luckily, no serious injuries resulted.

"It was still a tremendous loss, but the people were able to get out and we saved as much property as we could with what happened," Matlock said. "But it could always be worse."

On private property, the reach of the fire department is limited. Matlock said crews routinely see people who are on oxygen and continue smoking or who smoke in bed. The department cannot regulate that activity; it can only raise awareness about its dangers.

With summer and its dry weather approaching, smokers should be even more aware of what they do with their butts.

"We're liable to go through a spell without rain at any point," he said, "and we'll be sitting here with a tinderbox and when someone throws it out, we'll have brush fires that could become residential fires."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at 423-757-6731 or dcobb@timesfreepress.com.

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