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Butts, Balconies & Fire

You’re sitting on your balcony on a warm summer’s night enjoying a gentle breeze and the city lights. Suddenly, you spot a tiny glow. A shooting star? No. A firefly. No.

It’s a lit cigarette that someone has thoughtlessly flicked off a balcony above yours. And it’s a fire hazard.

Peter Darrington, District Chief of Public Education for Toronto Fire Services says flicking cigarettes off balconies is a big problem. “A cigarette that somebody’s flicked off blows onto another balcony or the balcony down below. If combustibles are there, you’ve got the makings of a fire.”

Here’s what people are saying on social media about the matter:

“It happened in our building last summer. The entire patio set caught fire and blew out the windows.”

“I live on the ground level and have to keep my patio furniture away from the upper balconies to avoid more burn holes in them.”

“I’m on the ground floor with no overhang coverage. I have many cigarette butts land on my balcony everyday. I had one drop, still blazing, about 3 inches away from me.”

For more than a few condo dwellers it’s a familiar story. “But it’s not just the flicker at fault in cases where fires start,” says Darrington. “The balcony owner below also bears some responsibility.”

“Let’s call it an equal responsibility. The person flicking the cigarette off the balcony is doing something wrong. But so is the person who’s using their balcony for storage purposes,” says Darrington. “You end up with these balconies that are covered with excess materials that won’t fit in the units. Balconies are not designed for storage,” he says. “A couple of chairs and a table to enjoy the outdoors are fine. But once you start putting this combustible material on the balcony, a cigarette lands on that and can ignite.”

In September 2010, a balcony fire attributed to hoarding happened on Wellesley Street East. Whether it was by cigarette or not, the fact is the material was there just waiting for a flame. Asked how many balcony fires are started by discarded cigarettes, Darrington says those statistics aren’t kept. “It’s one of those things that sometimes [is recorded] as an unknown cause.”

“In general, high-rises are built with the intent of confining a fire,” Darrington points out. “For example, floors, ceilings and walls are made with concrete. Exit stair shafts have to be separated from the remainder of the building. Corridors and floors have to be separated.”

“The building is fully compartmentalized,” says Darrington. “Each dwelling unit is compartmentalized from the rest of the building using concrete or combinations of drywall on steel studs. The idea is if you’re in your unit (and fire erupts) your means of egress is through corridors and through a route that is separated from the remainder of the building.”

The retrofit section of the Ontario Fire Code came into effect in 1994 requiring older buildings to meet higher standards for fire safety. Probably unbeknownst to loft dwellers in old warehouses that feature lots of wood is that buildings with wooden supports are likely to sustain less damage than recently-built ones with steel supports.

“Wood fares very well in a fire situation, much better than steel,” says Darrington. “Steel loses complete structural integrity at about 700-degrees Fahrenheit (371-degrees Celsius).” To back up that point, he tells about a fire decades ago at the old Levy auto-wreckers site in west-end Toronto. Some of its sheds were built in the early 1900’s with wood. More recent ones were made with steel.


– Photo by Dennis Hanagan

“The ones with steel just disintegrated. The supports in the woodsheds were still standing,” says Darrington. “Although wood is combustible it has a natural resistance to fire, in a sense, because there’s air in wood. There’s trapped air, even though it may be very miniscule. And, air is a great insulator.”

Stairwells in high-rises are pressurized to keep out smoke so that residents can use them to safely exit the building. Pressurized stairwells? “It’s a fan that’s required in buildings. It goes into the stair shaft and into the elevator shaft and it creates positive pressure. When the fire alarm system goes on, those fans come on and they blow air from the outside into the stairways and into the elevator shaft. It moves the air and smoke out of the stairways and out of the firefighter’s elevator shaft.”

Toronto Fire Services has aerial ladders that can reach six or seven stories. But how do firefighters rescue people from floors higher up? “Well, for one thing, helicopters don’t fly in and lift people off rooftops. That’s a Hollywood thing,” says Darrington. “In fact it’s required by law that the doors to the roof areas be kept locked. Being able to land a helicopter on a roof is a really tough thing. And, if it crashed in buffeting winds, leaking fuel, you’ve got a much worse situation.”

Every building is required by law to have a fire safety plan that’s reviewed and approved by Toronto Fire Services. “It covers everything: what to do in the event of an emergency, what to do on a day-to-day basis to maintain the building in accordance with the fire code and what the assigned responsibilities are for supervisory staff,” says Darrington. “Every resident is required to have a copy of the procedures.”

“The most common cause of fatal fires is careless cooking, pots left unattended on the stove,” says Darrington. “Never leave it unattended. If you leave the kitchen turn it off. You have to keep kids away from the stove. Every year we get so many burn injuries because of a child reaching out and grabbing a pot handle. Keep them back a good three feet from the stove.”

If a fire does erupt in a pot on the stove, the simplest and best way to put it out is to put the lid on it or cover it with a cookie sheet. In other words, suffocate it. “You don’t even need a fire extinguisher for that,” says Darrington.

For more information about high-rise fire prevention visit


Dedicated reporter/photographer with expertise in covering daily news, politics, business, lifestyle and human interest features for print and online editions for 5 publications.

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