Lightning, smoking bring wildfires into parks

Each year, thousands of wildfires occur, destroying forests, animal habitats, properties, and even pieces of national parks.

Although the main cause of wildfires is lightning, man-made causes such as campfires and cigarettes are becoming a bigger issue.

Whether from an unattended campfire to an automobile passenger tossing his or her cigarette butt out the window, people are causing these man-made disasters to happen rather than trying to prevent them.

Click on the video at the right to view an audio slideshow about wildfires prepared by writer Ariele Gallardo with photographs from the National Park Service.  

“From the years of 1972 to 1998, there were five wildfires caused by cigarettes,” said Greg Bartin, forestry technician at Zion National Park in Utah.

The humidity levels and lack of moisture during fire season, usually from the end of June to the end of October, presents the perfect environment for a cigarette butt to ignite a flame if dropped on grass.

Kendra Mayes, Fire Program assistant at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, stated that smoking often contributes to fires.

“Tossing cigarette butts out the window of a moving vehicle should not be done. It can easily start a flame with the humidity,” she explained.

  At left and below, wildfires and scenery in Zion National Park in Utah and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (Photos courtesy of National Park Service and Greg Bartin).

Each year, there is approximately $6 billion in damage from wrongly discarded cigarette butts that result in fires. To avoid their properties from being a part of that huge catastrophe, national parks take extra steps to help people prevent a wildfire from occurring.

First of all, national parks are required to adopt the local laws regarding smoking. However, there are certain aspects that each park customizes to help keep the grounds flame-free.

“We do not allow smoking inside public buildings. Smoking is allowed outdoors, except during extreme fire danger periods, when we post restrictions,” stated Greg Caffey, chief ranger at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

National park policies regarding smoking usually differ from park to park; however, the opinion is mutual when the conditions during fire season are present.

Zion’s Greg Bartin stated that there are times when smoking is just not permitted.

“Smoking is allowed. However, it is banned completely when the conditions are severely dry and hot. These conditions change every year based on the amount of moisture that is present,” he explained.

In addition to placing specific smoking restrictions in areas of the park when needed, the gift shops do not sell cigarettes or any type of tobacco product.

“There are no cigarettes or tobacco product sold in the gift shops. Coming to our national park is for education purposes and that is what is sold in the gift shop, educational products and souvenirs,” stated Guadalupe’s Mayes.

Although cigarette butts are not the main cause of wildfires, they are detrimental to the environment and cause a wildfire that can be easily avoided.

Arthur Gonzales, South District fire management officer at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, stated that lightning is the real problem. 

“Nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by lightning,” he said.

Unfortunately, that last one has been caused by a cigarette butt or by an unattended campfire. The caused may be obscure but the verdict is clear, it was man- made.

National parks are not the only groups that are cracking down on the issue of man-made fires.

In 2001, a woman from Tampa, Gladys Louise Lewis, was arrested and taken to jail for tossing her cigarette butt out of the window of her vehicle. The arrest may have seemed a bit extreme but the issue of wildfires is very serious and is one that can be easily prevented with awareness.

Awareness about the dangers of wildfires is not something that is restricted within the borders of the United States.

Mike Barre, a citizen from British Columbia, was fined $3,000 for dropping a cigarette near a forest that started a wildfire in 2005.

The year before that in Texas, a discarded cigarette caused a 400-acre wildfire. 

These cases represent how serious a wildfire is and the measures that the government is willing to take to protect properties, forests and, most importantly, people’s lives.

Despite wildfires being a devastating force that destroys hundreds and even thousands of acres of land each year, they are a part of the natural life cycle. Old plants are burned out so new plants can emerge.

“When a wildfire occurs, we allow the fire to take it’s course because it is a natural weather phenomenon as long it is not threatening any life or property,” stated Bartin.

Prevention of wildfires is as easy as using the ashtray in your car, not throwing the butt out of the window, or remembering to extinguish a campfire.

Next time you want to throw your cigarette butt out of the window of your car, say to yourself, do I want to start the next wildfire?

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