Improperly discarded cigarettes are the cause of hundreds of fires every year, Stephen Gamble, the president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, estimates.

While there aren’t any current statistics as to how many fires are started in this manner, Gamble says these types of blazes happens hundreds of times each year.

Just this week, the South Hampton condos in Edmonton were ravaged by a fire caused by an improperly discarded cigarette.

About 400 residents were forced out of their homes and one-third of the units were heavily damaged or destroyed. Some will be out of their suites for more than one year.

A fire in Stittsville outside of Ottawa that left seven people homeless was also caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette, said the Ottawa Fire department.

fire 3 July 21

The fire at the South Hampton condo complex broke out around 1 a.m. Monday. (Michael Caldararu)

What’s inside planters can often be highly flammable. Soil often contains materials such as peat and sawdust. A lit cigarette can smoulder for a long time before the contents burst into flames.

Gamble believes such fires are becoming more common because more people are smoking outside their homes.

“It is surprising the number of fires we have nowadays that began on the outside of the building, and not the inside,” said Gamble.

Gamble says when a fire starts on the outside if often goes unnoticed — and can spread quite easily. 

“With the designs of homes now, with vinyl sidings and other things on the outside that are combustible, these homes are catching on fire,” he said. “It is getting a good foothold and spreading to the rest of the building.”

On Thursday, Edmonton’s fire chief Ken Block urged people to be careful when disposing of cigarettes.

“It’s time to start to talk about this,” he said. “I’m not sure why there’s such a lack of awareness when if you look back every year for the last number of years we continue to have these significant condominium fires.”

Block said something needs to change before a more serious fire occurs.

“Really, what’s it going to take?” he said. “Is it going to take a funeral? A multiple fatality at one of these events? I must say it’s only a matter of time before that happens.”

With files from CBC's Briar Stewart