Austin Fire Department warns of spike in cigarette-related fires

Austin Fire officials facing a growing problem city-wide: Fires started by cigarettes.

The Austin Fire Department responded to the latest fire caused by an improperly discarded smoking material Tuesday morning, bringing the total to nine such calls over the past few weeks

"It can be devastating. You're not only affecting yourself, you're affecting people in your apartment building," said Austin Fire Department Division Chief Palmer Buck. 

Tuesday's blaze forced six people out of their homes, causing $245,000 worth of damage in the process. 

According to the Austin Fire Department, from July 15 through August 15 of 2016, there were five fires caused in this manner, three of which were at apartment complexes.

In the same time period this year, those numbers have spiked to nine total fires - seven at apartments. 

"Improperly discarded smoking materials are the leading cause of fires in the city of Austin," said Buck. 

In all seven apartment fires, Buck said the respective complexes were up to date on their fire code. 

"The problem with these fires is they start on the outside, which defeats most of the fire protection features of the apartment complex. Many of the new apartment complexes (have sprinklers), which is fantastic, it keeps fires in check. But these fires start on the outside, and can easily work their way up to an attic," Buck explained, adding balconies and wooden decks are particularly susceptible.

It's a problem other parts of the country are also facing. In DeKalb County, Georgia, a fire in late July forced dozens of people out of their home. 

"It was pretty scary. We opened the door and could see flames and like an orange glow and we didn't know exactly where it was coming from," Caroline Ayres told our sister station in Atlanta, WXIA. 

Just two days earlier, a Georgia mother and her 6-year-old son were killed in another fire sparked by a cigarette. 

While Buck said the heat and dry conditions typically lead to an increase in fires over the summer, he pointed to a change in society that's also playing a role: people are smoking inside less than before. 

"People go outside to smoke. And sometimes, I think by being outside they feel a little bit more at ease in discarding their cigarette butts just by throwing them down than they would if they were inside," Buck said. 

If you do smoke, make sure to use an ashtray, or put it out in a metal can or water. Once cigarette butts begin to stack up, make sure to empty them out. 

While Buck said there are rarely criminal charges levied against the individual responsible for the fire, there could be civil penalties. 

"Our concern is trying to keep people safe, keep properties safe," explained Buck. 

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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