News item: Forest fires are raging throughout the B.C. Interior. One on northern Vancouver Island was thought to be human-caused.
News item: Improperly discarded cigarettes started five fires in Langford over the holiday weekend.
FOR A BRIEF moment in 2015, Mike Morris was my hero.
“Should we ban those who break campfire bans from using our provincial parks?” the Liberal politician, tasked with revamping B.C.’s wildfire laws, asked. “Should we impound the vehicles of those who flick lit cigarette butts from their car windows?”
But no, no, Morris did not agree to my suggestion. (I was just kidding, anyway; horsewhipping would have been sufficient.) In the end the provincial government did what it always does when trying to send a message that it’s serious about a problem: In April 2016, it raised the fines.
In the case of cigarette butt-chuckers, the penalty rose to $575. Given the tantalizing alternative of auto impoundment, this seemed light. I fumed and smouldered, just like the discarded cigarettes.
Frequent readers might recognize this as an annual rant for me. It’s one of those signs of the seasons in Victoria: First come the herring fishers on the Craigflower Bridge, then there’s Swiftsure, then the Peninsula strawberries ripen, then Jack starts moaning about butt-chuckers burning down the Island.
Some, arguing that most of the butts jettisoned from passing cars do no damage, think I’m overreacting. One guy even called to blame automakers, saying the absence of ashtrays in today’s vehicles forces him to toss his cigarettes out the window. (I think he was angling for a $10.4-million settlement from Justin Trudeau.)
To which I reply: The Fort McMurray wildfires were probably caused by humans. In 2003, the $31-million McLure fire north of Kamloops was started by a man who thought he had put out his cigarette by grinding it underfoot. Last week, the Idaho Press-Tribune wrote about a guy who was fined $53,000 US and given a 90-day suspended sentence for tossing a butt that started a 600-acre fire.
It’s not just a rural thing. As of June, the Toronto fire department had fought 27 balcony blazes caused by people flicking cigarette butts from a higher storey. In Britain, a drunken passenger who snuck a smoke in an airplane toilet, only to cause a fire at 33,000 feet, had his sentence set at nine years and six months in May.
But here’s what really burns me (along with the forests): Despite all the fanfare about increased cigarette-related fines, it’s largely smoke (if not actual fire) and mirrors.
How many British Columbians were actually fined for “dropping, releasing or mishandling a burning substance” — the offence that includes butt-chucking — last year?
Sixteen, out of a total of 153 Wildfire Act tickets written.
Frankly, that was 16 more than I anticipated. It’s a hard crime to prove.
That makes it similar to another “crackdown” introduced with much fanfare in June 2015, when B.C. brought in $167 penalties for left-lane highway hogs. In the 12 months after those fines were introduced, police wrote just 183 tickets for the offence provincewide.
Canada is a civil society, a nation of rule followers (the designated driver of North America, a comedian once said). Victoria, a government-military town, embraces order more than most. Even on empty streets, we’re hesitant to cross until the sign reads “WALK.” Only Visigoths abuse parking spaces for people with disabilities. Leaving coffee shops, we spend 12 panicked minutes staring at the 37 bins in the recycling-garbage area, uncertain what’s trash vs compost vs food waste.
The law-abiding obey rules not out of fear of consequence, but because it’s the Right Thing To Do. Social karma. Therefore, it drives us nuts when rule-breakers prosper, when there is no real deterrent for those who need one. (As far as Victorians are concerned, drivers who zip down the left lane of McKenzie before budging into the long, long line of traffic merging onto the Trans-Canada are only slightly better than murderers. Or maybe that’s slightly worse.)
For this is our fear: that we are being played for suckers. It’s why there was so much spitting and sputtering last week after West Vancouver police stopped a 22-year-old Ferrari driver doing 210 km an hour on the Lions Gate Bridge, the same place he was caught doing 130 in April. The impression was of a spoiled rich kid undeterred by the law. Forget the 60-day impound, crush the car and don’t let him own another.
As for butt-chuckers, press them into service fighting forest fires.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops.
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