CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A two-story house fire in Chesterfield County resulted in three people — including a child — being forced from their home and the structure being declared a total loss. The cause? A discarded cigarette.

Deputy Fire Marshal for Chesterfield Fire & EMS, Capt. Joe Harvey, spoke with 8News about the dangers of “improperly discarded smoking materials.” Harvey explained that disposing of used cigarettes in flowerpots or garden mulch can cause fires to begin unexpectedly.

“Sometimes it can happen within an hour. We have seen other times where it takes several hours before it actually ignites,” Harvey said. “And often times these pots are next to ordinary combustibles on a porch or combustible siding on the house. When that ignites, especially if it’s an overnight fire, the fire gets extremely large before anybody notices it.”

Harvey and other fire experts have conducted tests to measure the speeds of cigarette fires.

“I’m passionate about this issue,” Harvey said. “Often, people are having people over, they’re barbequing, they’re having a good time. And it’s just a second nature for people to dispose of these in — what we call — an improper way … Then the next thing you know; everybody goes home at 2 o’clock in the morning … And, because it’s an external fire, not an internal fire, they’re not alerted by their smoke alarms … By the time they wake up, the fire is out of control.”

According to Harvey, these incidents are some of the leading causes of fire fatalities in the county. Since 2008, there have been 37 fire fatalities that occurred in homes, 16 of those — approximately 43% — were caused by smoking. And over the past 23 years, 88% of the county’s fire fatalities were related to improperly discarded smoking materials.