Cigarettes are Causing Fewer Wildfires, but Why?

 

The number of wildfires caused by cigarettes declined sharply over recent years, although most wildfires are still – whether accidentally or intentionally – caused by people. Photo by Andrew J. Boone, South Carolina Forestry Commission. Courtesy of Bugwood.org.
The number of wildfires caused by cigarettes declined sharply over recent years, although most wildfires are still – whether accidentally or intentionally – caused by people. Photo by Andrew J. Boone, South Carolina Forestry Commission. Courtesy of Bugwood.org.

The number of wildfires caused by cigarettes has fallen drastically. “Since 1980, smoking-caused wildfires fell by 90 percent,” says U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientist Jeffrey Prestemon. “Until recently, little has been known about why, and other causes of wildfire have not experienced this level of decline.”

Prestemon, project leader of the SRS Forest Economics and Policy unit, recently coauthored a modeling study on smoking-caused wildfires. The study was led by David Butry, an economist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire. The scientists evaluated three possible reasons for the decline in smoking-caused wildfires: national requirements for less fire-prone cigarettes, better methods of identifying the causes of wildfires, and a decline in the number of smokers.

“We found that 10 percent of the decline – a small but meaningful factor – is because fewer people smoke,” says Prestemon. Since the 1980s, the number of adults who smoke cigarettes has fallen from 33 percent to 19 percent, and teen smoking rates have fallen as well.

Starting in 2004, states began requiring cigarettes to be self-extinguishing, so less prone to cause fires. The advent of self-extinguishing cigarettes led to a 23 percent decrease in the number of cigarette-caused wildfires. “The size of this effect was surprising,” says Butry. “Less fire-prone cigarettes were designed to reduce smoking fatalities in homes, but clearly they have had other, unexpected benefits.”

Billions of cigarettes are discarded outdoors each year, and before the widespread use of less fire-prone cigarettes, they were more likely to smolder, sometimes igniting nearby vegetation. Under laboratory conditions, less fire-prone cigarettes self-extinguish over 75 percent of the time. When discarded by roadsides or outdoors, they usually do not continue to burn, although scientists are not sure how many discarded cigarettes self-extinguish. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a discarded cigarette starting a wildfire has always been small compared to other causes of wildfire.

The most significant reason for the decline is that investigators now have better ways to tell how a wildfire began. “As many as half of wildfires once considered smoking-caused were actually started by something else,” says Prestemon. And while understanding the causes of wildfire ignition does not reduce the actual number of fires, there are other benefits.  “Better investigations and fire classification mean that wildfire prevention specialists can better target their messages at the causes most likely to yield the biggest gains in preventing unwanted fires on our public and private lands,” says Prestemon.

The cumulative impacts from reduced smoking, less fire-prone cigarettes, and improved fire investigation methods include economic benefits. Across national forests and grasslands of the 12 states studied (which included Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas), $3.5 million in fire-fighting and rebuilding costs were avoided due to the decline in smoking-caused wildfires. “We contend that these benefits are accruing nationwide, not just in the public lands of states analyzed in our study,” says Prestemon.

Read the full text of the article.

For more information, email Jeffrey Prestemon at jprestemon@fs.fed.us.

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