One discarded cigarette can change a person’s life forever. Actually, not just one person’s life, but hundreds. The 2003 wildfires spoke to that. (Roxanne Hooper/Langley Advance)

Wildfire reflections: A time for no ifs, and or butts

How do people not understand the dangers they pose to themselves and others?

Human stupidity or recklessness apparently knows no bounds.

With forest fires breaking out daily in B.C., the weather not cooperating, and literally thousands of people – any given day – evacuated from their homes, we continue to hear about idiots (there’s no better word for them) discarding their cigarette ashes and butts near, or on, flammable materials (ie. browning grass, bark mulch, and tinder dry underbrush).

While some of the wildfires currently burning in this province are caused by lightning strikes or something as innocent as a spark from an engine – because of the tinder dry conditions – another cause, which makes my blood boil, is cigarettes.

Cigarettes have long been a fire hazard – whether on the road or in the home, and I’m not just talking in the midst of “fire season.”

So often, a combination of smoking and carelessness is enough to spark a blaze. Closer to home, I’ll remind you that the Paddington Station fire was caused by a discarded cigarette.

And in recent days, we have been hearing countless calls dispatching firefighters from throughout the Lower Mainland to extinguish grass, brush, and bark mulch fires all ignited by – you guessed it – improperly discarded cigarettes.

Give your head a shake people. We might not have the trees-to-acre ratio seen in the B.C. Interior, but we can still burn.

Surely the destruction all these recent fires are causing to property and the trauma they’re inflicting on people’s lives is enough to drive home the message on smokers.

Cigarettes – if they must be consumed – must be butted out in ashtrays. No exception.

First-person account

The following was a first-person account of an incident 14 years ago, when I was a reporter for the now defunct Kamloops Daily News, and was commuting back and forth to my home in Barriere during the 2003 wildfires.

Careless smoker caps a frustrating weekend

There’s nothing that enrages my temper like selfishness combined with stupidity and a disrepect for human life.

Saying that, let me tell you about my relaxing weekend – NOT!

It started Friday with grocery shopping in Kamloops. As many of you may already know, I was evacuated from Barriere with all the others on or around Aug. 1, when the McLure-Barriere fire blew out of control and ravaged the village of Louis Creek and many Barriere homes and businesses in its path.

After loading the van with food, we head to the SPCA shelter to pick up two of our five pets still being cared for because of the last evacuation.

I had just loaded the rabbit and was going back for my cat, Mowgli, when I overhear someone talking about the re-evacuation of Barriere.

Of course, I think it’s just a bad joke.

I’ve been lulled into an unrealistic sense of comfort that my home northwest of Barriere is going to be OK.

All right, maybe I’m lulling myself into believing the hell is coming to an end and that my family is going to be able to resume a normal life. It’s a self-preservation thing.

In my head, I know we’re still on evacuation alert. But, we’ve been allowed to return to our home, so the danger must be gone. Right?

Ha!

The evacuation was no joke.

The whispers are confirmed by shelter superintendent Jennifer Gore. I look to the volunteer who was helping me retrieve some of my pets, and say “Let’s do this all over again in reverse. I need to leave my girls a little longer.”

First, I head to the gas station, while my wife calls our friends and neighbours to warn them of the evacuation.

They turn on their radios too, but there’s no such news being reported and they’re reluctant to believe us.

As we approach Barriere, NL Radio finally confirms what we already know – at least in part.

Residents in the north end of Barriere have until 7 p.m. to evacuate their homes.

Fear of changing weather, in particular wind, could cause a shift in the wildfire and cause flames to come back towards our homes.

They want us out before nightfall.

We unload some groceries at home. Of course, nothing perishable is staying behind in the new fridge – we’re not going through that again, if we can help it.

Then, we reload for evacuation.

We’re heading to our friends’ home, just southwest of Barriere.

They haven’t been evacuated again – at least not yet – and they have our dogs. They were babysitting for the day, because we had so much running around to do and animals to collect.

Our friends’ home is in disarray because they experienced water damage during the previous evacuation. They are still trying to dry out their home and assess the level of damage.

Finally, the work is done, and we’re able to settle in for a night of broken sleep.

We don’t talk about it, but we’re each expecting that at any minute sirens will sound and someone will arrive to escort us out – again.

We leave the television and radio going through the night to alert us if there are any changes in the situation.

We’re fortunate. Unlike other residents a little farther south who received a visit at 2 a.m., we have no such visit.

We’re all up again by 8 a.m., anxious to have breakfast and head into downtown Barriere for fire information.

Our hopes are once again dashed.

Fire information there is days out-of-date, and we’re being told to go to Kamloops – to the Sport Mart Place again – to register if we need accommodations or food vouchers.

Emergency social services personnel set up at the Barriere Recovery Centre tell us they’re capable of registering us, but have not been trusted with the task.

They’re simply told to direct everyone to Kamloops. How stupid.

We thankfully have a place to stay and the stressful journey is not necessary. (By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with the area, Barriere is a 45-minute to one-hour drive north of Kamloops).

But I feel for the 400 to 500 other neighbours who might not be as fortunate.

We decide to wait it out with our friends, stock up on gas and ice and head back to their home. We settle into what can only be described as an uneasy calm.

Every hour we gather together around the radio for an update. I’m hoping we can go home again, but at the end of each newscast, I’m also relieved to hear we’re not being evacuated from this safe haven.

The screech of a few sirens throughout the afternoon and early evening make all us panic again. But no one comes telling us to leave. We’re grateful.

It’s going to be an early night. All of us are wiped.

It’s another night of restless sleep.

Sunday morning comes. As soon as the sun comes up in the smoky haze, all of us are awake. But reluctant to face the stress and uncertainty just yet, we all remain in our beds, tossing and turning and trying to make the time pass faster.

Then comes a shout from one of our friends: “The evacuation order is going to be lifted.”

Jubilation and a renewed sense of stress take over. It’s now about 8 a.m. and the official word isn’t due for another hour. Close enough, I say, and start packing the van again.

Fifteen minutes before the official announcement is due, we wave goodbye to our friends and thank them for their hospitality. We’re homeward bound.

Unfortunately, I only have a limited amount of time. That’s where the stress comes in. I’m due in Kamloops this morning for work. So we boot it home again, anxious to get everyone there safe.

I’m relieved to be back, if only for a few minutes. A quick scan of the place determining most things are still fine.

There’s some further water damage in the living room. A sprinkler put on the roof by the fire restoration crew has managed to leak and cause more problems.

We’ve escaped this ordeal relatively unscathed compared to many other Barriere and Louis Creek residents. So, chalking this up as a minor inconvenience in the bigger scheme of things, I considering myself pretty fortunate and instead think about all those who have lost their homes.

Rushing into Kamloops now, I should not be surprised that there’s a further delay.

I’ve been stopped along with a few hundred other motorists.

We get to sit and watch for half and hour at Fishtrap Canyon, while crews fall trees and rocks from the cliffs overhead that – because of fire damage – could now easily break lose and endanger passersby.

What surprises and infuriates me most about this experience is not the further delays.

No. It’s the selfishness and stupidity of one older man in the line.

Traffic is finally preparing to move again, and this man is parked several cars back but has walked up the road to watch the work.

On his quick shuffle back to his car, he flicks his lit cigarette to the ground.

When I start screaming at him and honking my horn, he gives me a baffled look.

When he realizes why I’m outraged, he turns and squashes the cigarette with his foot. That’s not going to do the job, you fool.

If you have to smoke, use the ashtray in your car or a tin with a bit of water.

The McLure-Barriere fire, and a few others in the province this summer, have been started by careless discarded cigarettes.

How stupid and self-absorbed can that goof be, discarding a burning cigarette only three feet from a forest of black and brown trees that were ravaged by fire less than two weeks earlier.

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