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.