The Madison Fire Department is joining with Clear Gains, Wisconsin’s smoke-free housing initiative, to fight the No. 1 cause of apartment fire deaths: cigarette smoking.

Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis told reporters about the new partnership in a news conference Thursday with county public health officials who also are working on the voluntary program to help end smoking in multi-family housing in Dane County. Clear Gains provides education and support, including sample leases with no-smoking provisions, to owners of rental properties and public housing administrators seeking to ban smoking in apartment units.

Noting smokers hold “a live fire in their fingers,” Davis said blazes started by careless smoking are so dangerous because they often take residents by surprise. A discarded cigarette butt “can smolder for hours” in a couch cushion or mattress pad before bursting into flames, threatening the lives of tenants in and around the unit and causing extensive property damage, he said.

Between 2005 and 2011, fire department records found 88 percent of Madison fires caused by smoking were in multifamily buildings, Davis said, highlighting the need to focus fire prevention efforts on apartment buildings.

“We haven’t really worked on the residential piece before, so we’re happy to do that with this program,” Davis said.

Deb Grayson, statewide coordinator for Clear Gains, said Madison’s fire department is the third — after Milwaukee and Green Bay — to join the Wisconsin effort, which began in 2012. Several other states also have programs, which are funded by the Centers for Disease Control, she said.

Another local partner in the Clear Gains program is the Tobacco-Free Columbia-Dane County Coalition, which is part of the public health department serving Madison and Dane County. Public health specialist Nina Gregerson said the coalition has helped landlords make 25 buildings smoke-free in Dane County, covering some 3,000 units and 7,500 tenants since 2013, on top of about 200 rental properties that already had policies.

“Smoke-free policies are definitely becoming the norm in this area,” Gregerson said.

Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.