10/25/2007 09:52 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cigarette Butts and Buttheads in a Time of Fire

Truly, I did not think we made 'em that dim any more.

Driving out of a Los Angeles hillside neighborhood this week, I stopped for a red light. In the car in front of me, the driver was smoking, languidly hanging his cigarette hand out of the window between puffs.

The wind was up and dry leaves were stirring. I watched his cigarette hand the way the fellow in the crow's nest on the Titanic must have watched the looming iceberg.

And then he dropped the burning cigarette butt in the street.

I was, as the English say, gobsmacked. The radio was reporting more acreage, more homes chewed up by fire. The sun was being caramelized by the haze of smoke. The ash was blowing in wisps off my windshield wipers. And this man flicked a lighted cigarette out of his car.

I leaped out of my car and hurried to stomp on the smoldering butt, grinding it out in the street. ''Are you nuts?'' I told him loudly -- my voice was shaking from the astonishment at what I'd just seen. ''The state is burning up around here, and you toss out a lighted cigarette? That's how these fires start! Be careful!''

He responded with some obscene insults. Then the light changed.

It's a misdemeanor in California to toss a lighted cigarette or cigar or match like that, but the cops I called told me they couldn't do anything -- they had to see it happening.

Something of the same happened to me in February, in stopped traffic on a major freeway. A man dropped his burning cigarette out of his truck. When I told him that he'd get a ticket if the CHP saw him, he answered that they'd let him off -- he was a sheriff's deputy.

I wonder about that deputy now. Has he been out directing traffic as people evacuate their smoky neighborhoods? Does he live in Canyon Country or Santa Clarita, and is his own home threatened by fire?

And what do you suppose he'd say to some man who tossed away the glowing cigarette butt that started the fire that burned down his house?