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McDONALD: Do you really wanna be the one who burns down the city?

July 27, 2017 - 12:33 PM

Inspiration is a wonderful thing and it comes in many forms. A column idea may come to me reading the news, another in the middle of the night lying bed. Some will come during barstool arguments, others from friends with an axe they want to grind.

This one drove right up in front of me a few days ago in a blue SUV, rolled down her window and lit a cigarette.

My neighbour and I were standing on the corner just in front of Knox Mountain Park and just happened to be discussing the provincial wildfire situation and watching the hikers pick their way up the Apex Trail like ants.

But we weren’t so much interested in hikers as the theoretical potential for the entire bowl that contains the trail to go up in flames should an errant spark make its way into the tall, extremely dry grass at the foot of the mountain.

That’s when my column idea pulled up, lit up and sat for the next few minutes puffing away, her cigarette held out the window while she browsed her mobile phone.

I had my camera with me and took photos just in case but I’m not trying to publicly shame this woman (okay, maybe a little) but I was gobsmacked at how casually she sparked up a smoke right beside Kelowna’s largest natural park, which is itself mostly closed and under extreme fire danger rating.

Like many smokers, hoping desperately to maintain resale value, she was trying to inhale outside her vehicle while sitting in it, ashtray probably unused with the butt destined for the roadside.

During the other three seasons, flicking that butt might only be another one of those disgusting smoker habits (stay tuned for my column on that one) but during fire season, it has the potential for real disaster… and criminal charges.

We watched, a bit incredulously, to see what she was going to do. If she dropped the cigarette, she could be one wind gust away from taking out the city’s premier park. If she stubbed it out in the ashtray, it was my column idea that would go up in smoke.

Did she drop it? The fact you’re reading this is your answer.

As far as column ideas go, berating British Columbians about being careful during fire season is not particularly original but the message is one that bears constant repetition as it doesn’t seem to be sinking in.

Roughly half of wildfires in any given season are human-caused and discarded cigarette butts are one of the big culprits.

Beyond the rule-ignoring power of their own addiction, I have some sympathy for smokers in this situation.

Indoor smoking rules have long driven them outside of bars, restaurants and — back to that resale value — sometimes their own houses.

And while their addiction is year-round, the fire season only lasts a few months. Hard to modify hard-wired behaviour for only a few months for what may seem a theoretical danger.

It must also be recognized that, however personally distasteful, cigarettes are a legal product and she was technically outside the park (where there is a year-round ban on smoking).

But that danger became real the moment that lit cigarette butt hit the ground and I bellowed across the road at the woman, all sympathy gone, about the extreme fire risk in the park.

She must have had some inkling of the wrongness of her behaviour because her head snapped up like a thief caught in mid-heist.

“I was going to get out and stamp it out,” she said, jumping out of her truck and making a big show of crushing her smoke.

Yeah, right.

It’s tempting to throw this woman to the wolves on social media and publish her full picture, but I have a problem with public shaming and its tendency to hand the perpetrator outsized punishment. (In this case, no fire was started, no lives or property lost.)

You just have to look at the comments following any of the recent media stories on fire-ban violators. Most merely demand lengthy jail time and monstrous fines (which the legislation already provides for) but some would take it a lot further.

One commenter suggested fire-starters be tied to pine trees ahead of major fires, while the rest of us sit back and watch them candle.

Maybe public immolation is an outsized response but I think it’s time government from Victoria on down beefed up its reaction to something that is becoming all too common — human caused wildfires, especially those from cigarettes.

Rather than demand a seasonal change in addictive behaviour, make it a year-around educational campaign against discarding butts, period, not just as a reaction to the fire danger. (Too many smokers think nothing of tossing their cigarettes casually on the ground, fire season or not.)

Go hard on the dangers this habit represents, including the threat to people’s lives and personal property.

Compare the habit to texting or drinking while driving or leaving dogs or children in hot cars, the type of behaviour that draws immediate condemnation and the threat of disembowelment on social media.

I also think its time to consider a complete ban on smoking in vehicles. We certainly don’t allow drinking while driving and cannabis, however legal in Canada, will never be sanctioned for use behind the wheel.

Why then do we permit people to drive around with what amounts to lit matches and expect they will never be thrown out the window?

B.C. has been lucky in that very few lives have been lost in recent decades, despite what seems to be increasingly-active fire seasons.

This is one step we could take to keep it that way.

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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