It was a still night around 10pm when my nurses aid at Trinity Nursing & Rehab walked out to the front entrance to find a ball of fire in one of my large planters under the front canopy. She started to put it out with a hose but was soon rescued by the Merriam Fire Department. The planter was a two feet wire basket I had fashioned into a standing cedar planter. To my horror the next morning, I saw the beginning of serious flame damage on the inside of the canopy entrance and significant burning on the cedar frame. The bare planter was next to a bench underneath the canopy.
We all quickly determined who was the probable resident that most likely would have put out her cigarette in the bare potting soil. The planters were lined with coco-fiber linings and I assumed that was the problem but turns out that potting soil itself is very flammable when dry. Why is dry potting soil so flammable? Well firstly there is no “soil” but rather it can include up to 65% shredded bark fiber and other ingredients including wood and peat moss. And the addition of time-release fertilizer in some leading brands acts as an oxidizer that makes any fire burn at a faster rate. To be clear, potting soil is shipped pre-moistened so all risks of the product begin once the bag is opened.
Two major fires in the Kansas City metro were blamed on potting soil fires in 2012. A fire in Olathe KS, caused $100,000 in damage and a house in North Kansas City MO, quickly went up in flames and was a total loss from a planter investigators believe had smoldered for four days. Overland Park Fire Education Specialist Tricia Roberts stresses small buckets of sand or water should be available to extinguish cigarette butts in outdoor areas with containers.
Tips For Responsible Use of Potting Soil]
- Do not store bags of opened potting soil in a garage or consider investing in large re-sealable tubs for left over material.
- Do not place planters directly next to benches or seats where smokers could be easily prone to extinguish their cigarette butts.
- Keep your planters well watered and maintained.
- Discuss the risks of potting soil fires when entertaining smokers before they first go outside to smoke near containers.
- Share the risks of potting soil fires at garden club meetings, within master gardener organizations or amongst gardening friends.
- Once the season is complete or if the planter is past its prime, clean out all containers of potting soil, so there are no pockets of opportunities for out-of-season fires.
- If you are a blogger or writer, please spread the word of this very important message. I’m sure it wouldn’t take much effort to contact your local fire department spokesperson to get local fires blamed on potting soil or damage statistics for your area to dramatically bring attention to the inherent danger. Please update me on your efforts. Smokey will be proud of you.