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One discarded cigarette butt could be all it takes

I found the burning cigarette butt while participating in a city clean up outside the multiplex last week, I had seen the woman smoking it while i was busy picking up hundreds of butts near the centre and thought nothing of it until I found that burn
Something as simple as a discarded cigarette butt could be the reason another wildfire starts roaring, writes columnist Nancy Vail. (Boaz Joseph/Black Press)

I found the burning cigarette butt while participating in a city clean up outside the multiplex last week, I had seen the woman smoking it while i was busy picking up hundreds of butts near the centre and thought nothing of it until I found that burning smoke chucked on the ground.  

It was a huge trigger. For one thing, the material they use to make those butts never breaks down, which is why I was hand picking so many. As cigarettes are disastrous to human health, the butts are a disaster for the environment, too. But I found that butt on the day where two evacuations had been called: one in Fort McMurray and a second in Fort Nelson, B.C. Closer to home, Jean Marie River and Fort Liard were both on evacuation notice and the highway between Alberta and the NWT had opened and closed all day because of wildfires and wildfire smoke. The fires are a short wind gust away and many of us are still trying to deal with the after-effects of last year's fires.

As some flames went underground only to emerge with the melt, so did the trauma from last fall's events. The smell of smoke and orange or black skies transports us back in time and a return to fight or flight mode. The mental health side effects from the 2023 evacuation flare up too, just like the overwinter fires themselves. 

NWT Fire has been pleading with the public to do its part to reduce more human-caused fire, so I was shocked to find that lit abandoned butt. They are already finding abandoned campfires in the woods nearby as well. Why isn't the message getting through? 

True, the cigarette was on asphalt away from the bushes, but seeing it there lit and burning sent a message of disrespect to the environment and all the people concerned about fire activity. Further, there was a steady stream of kids walking in and out of the arena and dropping that smoke doesn’t enforce right behaviour on their part. The way we live our lives is our message. 

As I told one of the people involved in dropping that butt, all it takes is one hot ember to start the fires all over again. To that end, we are all firefighters, and we are all responsible for preventing a repeat of what happened last fall. He got it. 

As we know, it only takes one of those burning embers to create a beast. This is why NWT Fire has been pleading with people to make sure their campfires are cold to the touch before they leave them and that no one sets off fireworks, flare guns or bear-bangers unless absolutely necessary. A spark gone AWOL in the backcountry can have serious consequences. 

We need to remember that four people lost their lives fighting fires last year, so it becomes more contingent on all of us to make sure we do the right and careful thing and encourage others to do the same. We are already being told that this year’s fire season could be worse than 2023, so prevention in our smallest actions is doing our part. 

We are both the point of first cause and first responders. The people who put their lives on the line to fight fires are often battling a fight which could have been prevented in the first place. The majority of the 2023 fires were caused by humans; even climate change is largely caused by us. It is up to us then to do what we can to avoid fanning the flames. 

We just made it through the May long weekend with fires still raging in northern Alberta and B.C. and fire watchers here keeping a close eye on Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith and Fort Providence. 

This year, let’s do our part and help fire fighters by practicing prevention. No one wants a repeat of 2023.