A Fire Safety Story: (Flower) Beds Are Burning

California wildfire in neighborhood

With dry weather and conditions, fires are more common. What can we do to understand them better and prevent a fire especially during dry spells? Take a look.


With summer forest fire season raging locally, some of us have been talking more about fire safety and getting annoyed by irresponsible smoking or campfire activities. Recently, one such conversation blew my mind, and I think it’s important for all homeowners to know as a risk.

When talking with my aunt, she mentioned a friend of hers had their home burn down last year, causing them to lose everything. With no obvious cause to the fire, an investigation was done. Thanks to results of the investigation and some backtracking, they came up with a surprising cause.

Fires start easily

The inferno burned through the wee hours of the morning, but the igniting point had occurred several hours earlier.

Picture it — a lovely summer night, everyone talking on the deck, enjoying beverages, smoking, laughing. Friends were house guests and the gentleman smoked, so the deck was the perfect place to while the night away. At the end of drinks, he did what most smokers would likely do — he extinguished his cigarette in the wooden flowerbox on the deck rail.

And therein lies our firestarter.

Root fires

“But he put the cigarette out,” you say. He did, but as any forest firefighter can tell you, fires can burn underground. There’s oxygen down there and there’s fuel too. The roots ignite and smoulder. This is how some forest fires go “underground” for the winter then magically burn all season and pop up later. These are called “root fires.”

This wasn’t an underground fire, though. This was a flowerbox. That’s a mere 6 inches the roots need to smoulder for before they reach nice, solid, combustible wood.

Fire finds a way to thrive

And that, friends, is exactly what happened. The flowerbox was on the railing. The roots smouldered for a good long time until sometime later in the night, the flowerbox caught a spark and started to smoulder too. It, of course, was on a wooden deck railing attached to a wooden deck, which was naturally adjoined to the house.

Flowerbox ignites, the railing catches, the deck goes up, the house burns. The trouble is, this all happened when everyone was asleep, so it was the farthest it could be from bedrooms, which is why the whole house went up and everything was lost. Everyone got out alive, but if a neighbor hadn’t woken for a snack, that might be a different story.

Only YOU can prevent housefires

In the end, the point is that it’s hard to know what’s going on in the ground beneath our feet, or even in flowerboxes. This summer, and all year round, it’s critical that you understand a lot can go wrong even from cigarettes your guests or you may think are being properly put out.

Have you ever had a jar or container folks drop their butts in when done? What if it’s the end of a party and that jar has been smouldering, everyone’s gone to bed, and a squirrel or raccoon knocks the cannister over? Is it same fire story, different end?

Designed to burn

The fact is, cigarette manufacturers worked long and hard to get a recipe that would allow for a slow, steady burn on tobacco. That’s what customers wanted, and it made them more money. That slow, steady burn, though, makes it a hazard for safety.

This is why folks should never throw cigarettes off apartment balconies either. I’ve heard of a few instances where it’s landed on a deck below and caught fire. Cigarettes are designed to burn, folks. Remember that.

Proper disposal avoids tragic endings

Make sure you have proper disposal for cigarettes when you’re entertaining. Ashtrays aren’t en vogue anymore, but they’re the safest means of disposal. A nice, safe place to squish out and extinguish a burning butt. If that fails, then provide a shallow bowl, something where they can reach the bottom and properly put the butt out.

Thank goodness this story didn’t end in tragedy, but hopefully it can be a force for greater good, allowing us to spread the word so it doesn’t happen to anyone else. After all, when it comes to fire safety, constant vigilance is the way to go.

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