Guest blog: The story that haunts me

By Jim Smith, Minnesota State Fire Marshal

March 22, 2021

Cigarettes burn slowly, houses don't. Careless smoking causes fatal fires.

​It's been a wonderful evening. You're celebrating your birthday with your closest friends. You're all gathered in the living room, laughing, telling stories, and creating memories for years to come. As the night goes on, one by one, your friends start to leave. Soon, the house is quiet and empty. Soon, you head to bed and fall asleep.

As time slowly slips by, you have no idea that a carelessly discarded cigarette has fallen in between the cushions of your couch. It smolders. Soon enough, the cushion begins to burn. As the flames grow higher, the toxic smoke begins gathering at the ceiling. More time. More fire. More smoke. It begins to bank down further and further. If you were awake, you would have noticed the smoke well before this. And if you had changed the battery in your smoke alarm instead of simply removing it to stop the irritating noise, the alarm would be sounding – waking you from your deep sleep. But nothing is preventing the fire from growing bigger and the deadly smoke from creeping down the hallway toward your bedroom. You were so tired when you went to bed, you didn't even think of closing your bedroom door. Now the smoke has nothing to stop it from entering your room. As you sleep, you don't even smell the smoke.

A passerby sees flames in your living room window and calls 911. The fire department arrives and quickly puts out the fire. During the search of your home, they enter your bedroom and find you on the floor. For some reason, you must have woken up. You must have sensed something was wrong. But it was too late. You had breathed in so much smoke, you had no energy to even stand up. You fell face down on the floor. And there you lay until the firefighters found your lifeless body.

The investigation determines a carelessly discarded cigarette started this fire. Your friends and family are shocked. You weren't a smoker. It must have been one of the guests at your party. But who? Your friends will probably never know. But for the rest of their life, someone will hold a guilt that will never be erased. “Was it me?" “Was I the one who dropped my cigarette?" “Was I the cause of the fire that killed my friend?" Lingering questions with no clear answer.

This is a true story from my early years in the fire service. And it has haunted me for a long time. So I strongly urge you: If you smoke, always be mindful of your lit cigarette. Ideally, never smoke in the house. Use a sturdy container filled with sand or water to snuff out your cigarette.

And be safe. Always.​