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Ashtray role burns Mother Nature

Oh, those nasty butts.

Cigarette butts, that is.

They've been responsible for nearly 300 small fires around Washington and Clackamas counties in the past two months. And firefighters worry that it's only a matter of time until a smoldering cigarette butt flicked into dry grass causes a major brush fire - or worse.

'It's definitely a concern this time of year, as things begin to dry out,' said Karen Eubanks, spokeswoman for Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue.

'It's a common problem, especially during the month of August, when the grass and weeds start to dry. It doesn't take much to start a fire.'

During the past several weeks, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue crews have responded to dozens of calls to extinguish small fires smoldering in bark dust outside buildings or in vacant lots where a still-hot cigarette tossed sparked a small blaze.

Since July 1, fire crews have been called to 272 fires in bark dust or vegetation. Most were caused by careless discarding of cigarette butts, Eubanks said. Some also were caused by errant fireworks during the Fourth of July holiday.

'As people are driving along the road, they'll toss their cigarettes out of the car in the grass, or they'll drop it in bark dust before going into a business,' she said.

Once the cigarette lands in dry bark dust, it's often just a matter of time before something flares up, Eubanks said. Smoldering, dry bark dust can go undetected for some time, then pop up with fierce flames, she said.

'What starts out small can turn into a big fire,' Eubanks said. 'We've had situations in the past where a cigarette started a fire in a flower bed and it spread to a fence and then to houses. It has the potential to result in a very big tragedy.'

High season

Despite this week's small smattering of rain, August and September are still very dry months for the state.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, which tracks regional wildfires, expects dry conditions to continue for awhile, with the possibility of dangerous fires.

Oregon's Department of Forestry said the state already has faced 624 human-caused fires this year, and more are expected.

Careless campers and people who toss lit cigarettes into the brush often are to blame for some of the fires, said Rick Gibson, the agency's fire prevention manager.

Examples of the situations local firefighters face this time of year aren't hard to find. On Aug. 6, a fire was discovered burning a 20-by-50-foot patch of grass at about 4:15 p.m. in the 13100 block of Southwest Walker Road. The fire, which was started by improperly discarded cigarette butts, was confined mostly to grass and blackberry bushes in front of the property.

At about 4 a.m. Aug. 15, firefighters were called to a house's deck on fire in the 2400 block of Northwest Woodrose Drive. Residents said they used a tree's wooden pot as an ashtray, which could have started the blaze.

Homeowners said they were able to put most of the fire out before firefighters arrived. The fire burned part of the house's deck and climbed up the siding, stopping before it was able to leap an eve and get into the attic.

On Aug. 14 firefighters rushed an apartment in the 16100 block of Northwest Schendel Avenue, where homeowners were awakened by a fire burning on the deck and an exterior wall. The fire apparently began when someone pushed a cigarette butt into the deck's railing.

The apartment residents said they used a plastic soda bottle as an ashtray, but it was full.

Flames leapt three feet into the air, damaging the deck and threatening the building.

A homeowner in the 19900 block of Southwest Jay Street woke at about 4:52 a.m. Aug. 13 to find an eight-foot section of his wooden backyard fence burning. The fire, apparently caused by discarded cigarette butts, was confined to the fence and about a five-foot patch of bark dust.

The homeowner had a party the night before and the cigarettes may have been tossed during the festivities.

Firefighters responded at about 6:21 a.m. Aug. 21 to a fire burning a 20-foot section of bark dust in the 10700 block of Southwest Cascade Avenue in Tigard. Firefighters found discarded cigarette butts in the area.

Early Saturday morning, firefighters were called to a house in the 16300 block of Southwest Horseshoe Way where they found a blaze engulfing a cedar fence. A neighbor smelled the smoke at about 2 a.m. and fought the fire with a garden hose.

The fire probably was caused by discarded cigarette butts or barbecue ashes.

Monday afternoon, firefighters fought a blaze in the 9100 block of Southwest Wilshire Street that burned a 75-by-50-foot section of grass, shrubs and blackberry bushes. The fire was reported at about 1:43 p.m. by employees of a nearby church.

Firefighters found lots of cigarette butts discarded near the fire. Also, church employees said the area was popular with homeless people.