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Fire Investigators Advise Caution When Discarding Cigarettes

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Fire investigators are issuing a stern warning Monday after a number of serious deck and porch fires around the metro.

Investigators are finding that too often a discarded cigarette is to blame -- many times smoldering for hours before reaching a critical and dangerous temperature.

In the past two weeks, eight house fires in St. Paul have been caused by discarded cigarettes. People thinking they're safe, dropping them into ashtrays or potted plants on a deck.

"They don't realize that potting soil isn't soil, it's peat moss and pine bark and other items like that ground up that actually smolder and burn," said Fire Investigator Jamie Novak.

Novak can prove it. Thirty minutes after putting a cigarette into a dried out planter, look what happens.

A thermal imaging camera sees what we can't. That pot's hot.

Thermal image of cigarette in soil
(credit: CBS)

"We're seeing 500 to 590," Novak said.

That's the temperature of the burning potting soil. And it can smolder for hours until erupting in flames.

Just like what happened to Jennifer Krinke.

"Getting ready for planting cigarette went right here and it smoldered from 4 o'clock until 2 o'clock," Krinke said.

Her fire spread from the deck into the walls, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

"Now we've got the wall of the house on fire," said Novak.

And when plastic coffee containers double as ash trays it's even more revealing. Twenty minutes after dropping a cigarette, it smolders, then erupts in flames.

Burning coffee container
(credit: CBS)

"Now that's catching your vinyl siding or your wood siding of the house on fire, it's catching the deck," Novak said.

If that's not alarming enough, look how quickly landscaping mulch ignites. What began with a discarded cigarette is soon a growing fire.

Burning landscaping mulch 2
(credit: CBS)

It can happen as quickly as 20 minutes, or maybe 18 hours.

"That's a big time spread, so a lot of times people are telling me, 'It can't be my cigarette, because that was four hours ago.'"

Fire safety experts suggest switching to a metal container -- ideally one filled with water.

The bottom line is to make absolutely certain that discarded cigarette is out.

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