"Butts" to blame for 30 grass fires

It’s another dramatic example of just how dry things are in Michiana.

Half of all field and grass fires in unincorporated St. Joseph County this summer were “most probably” caused by discarded smoking materials.

“It’s not that every cigarette butt that goes out the window is going to start a fire but obviously in this case, 30 of them did,” said Clay Territory Fire Marshal Dave Cherrone.

Cherrone says his review of the statistics revealed that 30 of the 60 field and grass fires in the county since the beginning of June were likely caused by discarded smoking materials.

While it’s impossible to say for sure if a discarded cigarette started a recent grass fire along the U.S. 20 Bypass, east of Elm Road, today, there were plenty of cigarette butts littering the shoulder nearby.

“We can only assume that it was started by a discarded cigarette,” said Penn Township Fire Chief John Vanbruaene. “The grass is so dry going along that Bypass it doesn’t take much more than that just to start something really rolling.”

During this afternoon’s interview with the chief, he was called away to fight another grass fire on Basswood road.

“We do feel like wild land firefighters all of the sudden,” said VanBruaene.

Now, it looks like weary firefighters might get some help from police. “Keep this in the forefront of your mind, the state police are out there looking for it,” said Sgt. Trent Smith of the Indiana State Police.

Flick it and ticket is apparently the new motto of the Indiana State Police. “You might not see it as a big deal, that it’s just one cigarette butt that’s blowing around on the road, but on a day like today it can end up on the road, on the side of the road within a matter of minutes and you might have, you know, a grass fire, a dish fire or something like that within just really a few minutes,” said Sgt. Trent.

Sgt. Trent says discarding smoking materials from a moving vehicle is an infraction, much like a speeding ticket. Sgt. Trent says that fines will vary from county to county but generally range from $100 to $200.

It’s believed that the butt tossing offenders are both local people who should know better—and out of towners—who arguably don’t.

“Well, like the bypass or even the toll road in those to instances you’ve got people traveling through here from all over the country and they don’t necessarily know there’s a burn ban, they don’t necessarily know, the, you know, what’s going on around here,” said Chief VanBruaene.

While gathering information for today’s story, News Center 16 discovered another dramatic example of how dry things are.

Two local fast food restaurants both had their landscaping mulch catch fire due to discarded smoking materials.

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