Editorial: No butts about it, cigarettes can cause fires

A drought, plenty of fuel and tinderbox conditions – it’s a disaster waiting to happen. 

That is the case in bushland and grassy areas across the Southern Tablelands and pretty much the rest of the state of NSW and the country in general.

Yet people still seem to think it is OK to flick their cigarette butts on the ground and out of car windows.

In the first instance this behaviour is a criminal offence. It is littering and can incur a penalty of up to $900 for unlawfully discarding a lit cigarette butt. 

According to the Environmental Protection Authority, cigarette butts are “consistently the most littered item in NSW”. This behaviour has the potential for even greater cost with potentially life-threatening consequences. According to Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW), every year they are called to hundreds of roadside fires believed to be caused by discarded butts.

A recent study by a student at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), with help from FRNSW and CSIRO, provided solid proof.

The study, called ‘Can cigarettes butts start (bush) fires?’, involved outdoor trials supervised by a station officer and three firefighters with an engine from Parramatta Fire Station.

It involved lit cigarettes thrown into grass on the side of a road in the Sydney suburb of Prospect where there was no danger to surrounding property.

At the time, the prevailing weather conditions were wind speeds of 40km/h, fuel (grass) moisture content about 12 per cent of oven-dry weight, and humidity 14 per cent. On the day it was about 27°C with a north-westerly wind.

In three out of the 75 trials, or four per cent, the grass caught alight and started to burn, requiring the firefighters to extinguish the flames. The station officer involved confirmed that the fires would have progressed quite quickly “if we hadn’t been there”. 

Four per cent may seem nominal, but when it comes to a potential life-threatening situation, a zero likelihood of causing a fire is the only result that should be accepted.

The ability to achieve a zero likelihood is as simple a smoker discarding their cigarette butts in the proper manner.

Meanwhile, those who don’t follow the rules should be made accountable. It is as simple as making a report on the website: