By Monica Harvey
State police are cracking down on people who do not properly dispose of their cigarettes or other lit tobacco products as part of an effort to prevent fires during the state's drought.
Chief Paul Whitesell sent a memo to troopers this week outlining the citations they can use against individuals who throw cigarettes out of their cars.
"The drought has created an extremely sensitive environmental climate that is particularly susceptible to burning materials," Whitesell told his officers.
Eighty-seven counties have imposed burn bans, which are enforced by local police.
"However," Whitesell wrote, "I would like to remind you that statutes exist which the Indiana State Police may enforce in an attempt to prevent further fires from beginning within our areas of enforcement."
Hoosiers that throw any kind of lit object - including cigarettes, cigars, matches or other objects - out the window of a moving car commits a Class A infraction.
Individuals who throw objects out of cars that aren't moving can be cited with littering, a Class B infraction.
"It's not a very frequently cited matter compared to other traffic violations," Indiana State Police Captain David Bursten said.
But with the current drought conditions, state officials are worried about anything that could start a fire and Indiana State Fire Marshall Jim Greeson said a lit cigarette butt has a 100 percent chance of doing so.
Also, putting out a one-acre fire can take 30 minutes, he said. A two-acre fire doubles the time. Already this year, cigarette butts have started countless fires - far more than even during the state's last drought, Greeson said.
"I don't know an exact number, but I know it's in the hundreds," said Greeson
That's why state officials are looking for some way to stop Hoosiers from tossing those cigarettes out their car windows.
"First and foremost, it is littering, but beyond that fact, in these conditions it can result in a fire, it can result in property damage and could cause loss of life and we want to avoid that," Bursten said.
Ralph Douglas Howard, a smoker from Indianapolis, acknowledged he may not always be as careful as he should when he's done with a cigarette.
"I know by me smoking cigarettes, I ain't going to take the time but sometimes I do," Howard said.
But Alan Unger said taking the time to put a cigarette out properly is important.
"It just takes one spark and it could be another Colorado wildfire because the fact it's been so dry and the winds (are) just going to move these fires quickly," Unger said.
Monica Harvey is a reporter with The Statehouse File, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.