The $6,500 Cigarette

$6,508.02 to be exact.

It’s amazing to me that one little cigarette could cause so much damage – one little cigarette, improperly extinguished in a wooden planter filled with potting soil. (See “There’s No Place Like Home” for the full story)  But, I should count myself lucky. I only lost my deck. I Googled “potting soil fires” and found an overwhelming number of stories, many about families who lost their entire homes. The Colorado Springs Fire Department reported an excess of 3 million dollars in damage one summer due to potting soil fires.

Potting soil? I was surprised too! The fire investigator who came to my home informed me that he investigates about 50 fires a year that started in potting soil. Many people think that potting soil is just dirt, but it isn’t dirt. It’s actually a mixture of combustible materials and Styrofoam pellets, perlite, and vermiculite, which are added to the soil mixture for aeration and water retention. Some contain fertilizers, which will accelerate the fire (see “Potting Soil Fires and Your Safety”).

But, the potting soil wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the cigarette. FEMA listed some startling statistics on their website regarding cigarette-related fires:

  • Every year, almost 1,000 smokers and non-smokers are killed in home fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials.
  • More than 1/3 of the people killed in cigarette-related fires were children.
  • 25% of fatalities were neighbors or friends of the smoker.

I’m extremely lucky to have woken up in time and spotted the flames on my deck. There were two adults (myself included) in my condo that night, 5 children and their parents living downstairs, and another 3 people next door – including 2 of my best friends. Had I not woken up, everyone could have been displaced. Or far worse.

The insurance covered the damages, less the $1,000 deductible, for which I am responsible. The kicker? I didn’t start the fire. I’m not even a smoker. I just so happened to have a house guest who smoked and decided to use my planter full of potting soil as an ashtray. He has refused to pay the $1,000 deductible, even though he is solely responsible for the fire. His excuse? I made him feel bad about it. 

My only consolation is that this is a good story – that maybe someone can read this message and learn not to extinguish cigarettes in potting soil. God forbid anyone should have to wake up in the middle of the night and see the home they’ve worked so hard to pay for up in flames. Or worse. The deck, the patio door, and a window can be replaced. Some things can’t.


6 Replies to “The $6,500 Cigarette”

  1. Oh Jolene, I am so sorry for the ordeal you have been through… not sure which is worse, the fire or the friend who would not take responsibility. It’s nice to know there are people like you out there in the world who look on the bright side and take the high road. -Kim

    1. Thank you, Kim. I think I could drive myself crazy over-thinking it and getting upset about the money. But, in the end there’s no choice but to move on. At least I have a brand new deck now to enjoy the summer!

  2. Jolene,
    Thanks for the education and insight. This information should be published beyond your blog to give global awareness. Publish in a local paper, send to NYT or WSJ??? After growing up in a smokers home, being surrounded by many smokers too, I thank God I was able to quit when I did. This 6k$ cigarette is beyond money as it kills life. I wasn’t always as careful in my younger days. So glad you survived, money can’t replace your life.

    1. I keep thinking that – money can’t replace a life. And I agree more people should know about this. The fire investigator said he wishes potting soil would have a big flammable warning on the bag. I checked the bag of potting soil I still had, and there wasn’t a warning that I could find. If it’s there, it’s not obvious.

  3. I’ve been following your story on FB Jolene, and I’m really sorry this happened to you. I also wanted to let you know that mulch will do the same thing. I used to smoke, and very rarely ever threw my cigarette butts on the ground, period. But one day, I was lazy and I flung it to the side thinking it would go in the grass and be fine. Well, it went into my flower bed, and about 3 hours later, my neighbor came over to let us know that our mulch was smoking. Sure enough, there was my cigarette butt in the middle of a charred, smoldering hole about 6 inches in diameter. Thankfully my neighbor saw it, or who knows if it could have turned into a real fire and burned our house down. I’m so sorry you had to go through this, but hopefully your story will help save someone else. And that guy, you call friend…I’d be rethinking that. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Bonnie. We’re both very fortunate to have learned some valuable lessons without too much damage. I’m still so thankful I happened to wake up when I did. (And that “friend” wasn’t much of a friend. As soon as he told me he wasn’t paying for anything he blocked me on FB so I couldn’t even respond. What a huge coward.)

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