A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Discarded cigarettes and mulch are potentially hazardous combination; some safety tips

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McDonalds Elizabethtown 1WHAS

This past week in Elizabethtown, a small fire started in a mulch bed next to a McDonald’s restaurant, and ended up destroying the entire building.

Local firefighters claimed that a discarded cigarette butt thrown into a bed of dry mulch is believed to have started the fire.

A customer alerted the manager inside the building after noticing the fire and employees rushed out to extinguish the fire, but it quickly grew out of control. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire had spread from outdoor landscaping to the building and into the attic.
Interesting enough while reading the article in the news what caught my attention was that that they said, that the “local firefighters had also responded earlier in the day to a similar call where someone threw a cigarette into mulch at an assisted living center that ignited another fire.”

According to beachapedia.org some 17 million pounds of discarded cigarette butts in the United States annually and some 4.5T cigarettes are littered worldwide annually. Not only do these cigarette butts pose a hazard to animals when mistaken as food, they are responsible for tens of thousands of mulch fires annually throughout America, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, and even the loss of lives.

Mulch_shredded_yard_waste wikipedia

A more notable recent mulch fire occurred in Massachusetts May 2015 in a large apartment complex. One man died after a cigarette butt was discarded in a mulch bed, which spread to a car, then to the building. Thirty-six apartments and six cars were destroyed, displacing many of those residents.

The fact is just about everybody reading this article either has a mulch bed around their place of residence, or is working in a building that does. Most of us fail to recognize that mulch is nothing more than small kindling that can ignite into a devastating and destructive fire, if the conditions are right.

Just about all mulch including the new rubber mulch is a combustible material that can easily be ignited by improperly discarded cigarette butt.

A mulch fire can be well underway before someone ever notices and can quickly expands to a structured building. Mulch fires occur year-round but primarily in the summer when there is little rainfall. As a result, vegetation and landscaping materials become dried out, allowing for easy ignition. Factors such as below-average rainfall, extremely dry conditions, warm temperatures, and abnormal winds increase the risk of serious damage from mulch fires.

In fact mulch piles have been known to spontaneous combust out of nowhere. It may sound bizarre, but the right recipe of heat, decomposition and a little bit of wind can combine to start a fire, even in two inches of mulch around a flower bed or playground.

Anything that is decomposing generates heat and that is why sometimes you will see a pile of mulch start to steam. Black or dark mulch is more susceptible to spontaneous combustion because black absorbs heat, but such fires have occurred in brown mulch too. There have been instances where a vehicle hauling mulch going down the interstate with circulating air have ignited peoples trailers hauling the a load of landscaping mulch.

Spontaneous combustion occurs when a substance generates enough heat to ignite without an outside source.


When I was a child, mulch was predominately used on commercial settings. But times have since changed. Homeowners are taking more pride in their landscaping, and the mulch & landscaping industry today is a multi-billion dollar industry. I estimate today that nearly 8 of 10 homes have some form of combustible mulch surrounding the front of their homes. This can be extremely hazardous to those homes with combustible exterior construction.

Out west where out of control wildfires are more common, homeowners are very aware of the threat. But here in Kentucky it is the least of our worries, until you read about such an event as what occurred in Elizabethtown this past week.

Another key factor to the increase of mulch fires has been the prohibitions on smoking indoors enacted by state/local governments and private businesses. Employees today also have to smoke outside and many do so right next to the building to help block the wind or sun. As a result cigarette and cigar smokers often discard lighted smoking materials, into the landscaped areas
.
Cigarette_butts_and_ashes wikipedia4

Because of a couple of destructive mulch fires, in 2012 the state of Massachusetts actually passed a state law requiring landscapers to keep mulch 18 inches away from combustible exteriors of buildings, such as wood or vinyl. Although residential buildings with six units or fewer are exempted, the state fire marshal recommends homeowners keep these safety practices in mind.

Here are some safety tips to help prevent mulch fires:

Be a responsible smoker:
If you smoke, remember to properly dispose of all smoking materials in appropriate non-flammable receptacles for disposing of smoking materials and matches.

Do not discard cigarettes in mulch or potted plants.

If you smoke outdoors be cautious to not discard your cigarette next to any buildings, decks, porches, mulch beds and exterior stairways.
Never throw lit smoking materials out of a car window.

Tips for property managers, building owners &lLandscapers

Provide a minimum of an 18-inch clearance between landscape mulch beds and combustible building materials, such as wood, vinyl siding and decks.

Consider replacing mulch with non-combustible mulch such as rock or pea stone around gas meters and combustible portions of the structure.

Provide proper receptacles for smoking materials at all entrances to public buildings in designated smoking areas. Place them at least 18″ away from the building, do not mulch in these areas and remember to regularly empty smoking receptacles.

Remove mulch near all entrances and from drive-thru lanes next to a building.

On extended drought-like conditions and windy days, grounds and maintenance crews should increase surveillance of mulch beds.

Not only do you want to water your landscaping plants and foliage, but you should also water your mulch bed periodically as well.

Use only the manufacturer’s recommended size/wattage for yard light bulbs and keep landscaping lights high enough from the mulch.

Use only electrical devices and cords listed for outdoor use, and follow the manufacturer’s specifications.

If you see a pile of mulch steaming you should spray water on the pile.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven-Moore_10221

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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