Cape Town is arguing whether a cigarette really started its bush fires

Image: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
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The fires may be out in Cape Town but a theory about the cause of blaze is kindling debate.

According to officials in South Africa’s second-largest city, the fire may have resulted from a cigarette butt cast from the window of a car along a highway in Muizenberg, a suburb that lies to the city’s southeast. From there the burn spread westward across the peninsula atop which Cape Town sits.

The flare-up about the fire’s origins began after city officials attributed the outburst to tobacco tossed while aflame. “We’ve had a huge increase of fires, with dry and windy conditions and I’m afraid negligence by people doesn’t help,” JP Smith, an alderman who heads the city’s public safety committee, told eNews Channel Africa.

Though Smith cited a text from someone who claimed to have witnessed the butt tossing, that hasn’t persuaded some locals, who took to Twitter over the weekend to voice their skepticism. “This story about a cigarette starting the fire on Boyes Drive is the biggest joke of the year,” tweeted Justin Hawthorne. “A cigarette can’t start a fire,” wrote Craig Jenkins.

Some of the comments were reacting to an infographic produced by South Africa’s News 24 which has gone viral on Facebook and Twitter.

As it happens, a stray cigarette can spark an inferno under the right conditions, according to a study released last year by a student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.

As part of the study, researchers lit 75 cigarettes and tossed them one at a time them into grass on the side of a road when the wind whipped at 40 kilometers per hours (24.8 mph), the humidity hovered at 14% and the herbage had a moisture content of 12% of oven-dry weight.

Three of the butts ignited the bush sufficient to force firefighters, who participated in the trial, to extinguish the flames. “The fires would have progressed quickly if we hadn’t been there,” Paul Scott, the fire station officer, said in a news release. “It’s no wonder we’re called to so many fires on busy roads and freeways and by railway lines when they can start so easily.”

It has been hotter and windier than usual in Cape Town, where officials said that strong winds fanned the flames. Though firefighters say they have brought the conflagration, which has ravaged the area for six days, under control, flare-ups continued on Saturday.

Officials say they will investigate the cause of the blazes, which hospitalized one firefighter, burned 5,550 hectares (12,355 acres), damaged 13 structures and forced the evacuation of at least 500 people. The fire  has cost the region about about $500,000 (US) in firefighting efforts.