Only You Can Prevent Forest, No I Mean to Say, Potting Soil Fires

by Patrick Muir on July 9, 2014

pottingsoilIt 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]

  1. Do not store bags of opened potting soil in a garage or consider investing in large re-sealable tubs for left over material.
  1. Do not place planters directly next to benches or seats where smokers could be easily prone to extinguish their cigarette butts.
  1. Keep your planters well watered and maintained.
  1. Discuss the risks of potting soil fires when entertaining smokers before they first go outside to smoke near containers.
  1. Share the risks of potting soil fires at garden club meetings, within master gardener organizations or amongst gardening friends.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Patrick's Garden

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Pauline July 9, 2014 at 11:48 pm

That is a worrying thought Patrick, thank goodness yours was put out before more damage was done! Thank goodness not many people smoke these days and I think our potting mix contains more soil than yours, but fibre linings could quite easily catch fire if a cigarette was put near them, a sobering thought.

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Yes I can see where things would be different in the UK. You certainly don’t have the forest acreage for easy access to bark fiber and cheap peat moss we get from our friends up north in Canada.

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Shirley July 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm

At least everyone was okay and the fire was out quickly. Your cedar frame was so nice I’m sorry to hear it was destroyed.

Thanks for the good advice and I will share it. I didn’t realize potting mix was so flammable but just today I spotted potting mix in a container meant for cigarette butts and thought it seemed like a bad idea. The same goes for mulch. I have seen mulch fires burn fences and cars in a parking lot because someone tossed a lit cigarette into the landscaping.

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:42 pm

Well the openly good point was we got to the planter early enough. it’s still usable just limited charring on the posts where the baskets lay and plastic dripping the base support of the frame.

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New Hampshire Gardener July 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm

I’ve seen fires in both bark mulch and in peat moss that was used as mulch, and they had always been started by a smoldering cigarette. Peat moss especially can dry out quickly and it burns well.

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Well the potting soil risk was new to me but also never thought of the risk of mulch. Good point to remember and will investigate the risk nationwide as well. Thanks for the tip, my friend.

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snowbird July 11, 2014 at 6:54 am

I never would have thought that potting compost could cause a fire….but it makes sense when you think about it!xxx

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm

It never occurred to me before and now fertilizer is added to Scott’s, the number one brand, the risk is higher than ever.

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Jason July 11, 2014 at 11:07 pm

This is something I didn’t know about. Good for you to make people aware of how to avoid this danger.

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Patrick July 15, 2014 at 10:50 am

I’ve actually written a story in the Kansas City Gardener and am working on a story for Fine Gardening as part of what’s turning into a personal PR campaign.

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Please spread the word on your blog too, please Jason. It’s now a personal mission.

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AnnetteM July 12, 2014 at 3:09 am

I had never thought of that before. Thanks for the good advice. Thankfully not too many of our friends smoke, but I will make sure those that do get an ash tray.

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:26 pm

It was very scary and I believe the whole building could have been threatened if my aide hadn’t walked out there at just the right time. Just consider how the residents would not have been able to escape a fast moving fire like that. Feel our guardian angels were working overtime that night.

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Kimberley at Cosmos and Cleome July 12, 2014 at 4:56 am

It’s a good public service announcement there, Patrick. Many people would think, “Oh, it’s dirt, it won’t catch fire!” Nice (and by “nice” I mean disheartening) to realize what’s really in the potting “soil” too. Finally, even more reason to discourage people from smoking!

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Patrick July 21, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Since I think our lives were really threatened, it’s become very personal to me so I’ve already written a story in our Kansas City Gardener, will run one in the KC Star and Fine Gardening next spring. Will figure out how to spread the word drawing upon my experience as a marketing communications expert. Just thought I should do a guest post on Garden Rant.

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thesalemgarden July 29, 2014 at 3:02 am

wow, this is something to think about, that I honestly hadn’t. Thanks for the heads up!!

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Patrick September 14, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Now it’s your turn to spread the word, TSG.

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