Proper cigarette disposal could have prevented $8M fire

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Cigarettes cost about 30 cents each, but one of them sparked a huge Gilbert fire that tore through a plumbing warehouse Monday.

A campaign called Don't Trash Arizona said it takes little effort to dispose of a cigarette properly, but too often people put them out on the ground and leave them there. And as evidenced this week with the Gilbert fire, the consequences can be devastating.

"It only takes one to cause significant damage," said Kelly Taft, who is with the campaign Don't Trash Arizona, a partnership between the Maricopa Association of Governments and the Arizona Department of Transportation.  

She said about 500 bags of trash are picked up on Valley roadways every weekday, and cigarette butts account for about a third of that trash.

"The heat plays a factor, and we've got the monsoon winds, so you might think you're throwing a cigarette butt on the pavement, but it can blow into brush," Taft said.

She added that when a person is done lighting up, don't just throw the cigarette on the ground and walk away.

"Make sure that the cigarette butt is out and then toss them, don't leave it on the ground," she said. Taft also told us those cigarettes take years to decompose and pose some serious environmental risks: They can affect our water supply and even make wildlife sick if animals eat them.

So how did investigators know a tiny butt was to blame?

"There were some surveillance videos that were taken actually from the business where the fire originated, as well as from some local businesses in the area," said Capt. Mark Justus with the Gilbert Fire Department.

Witnesses helped, too, and although knowing the cause is one step closer to justice, it doesn't repair the millions of dollars in damage this business sustained.

"Somebody being careless basically changed the outcome of the next several years of the course of his life and how his business is operating," Justus said.

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