Solid Waste & Recycling

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SLOW BURN: Waging war against landfill fires

"With landfills, you don’t know what’s under there, and even the best records won’t tell you what’s there. It’s a lot of unknowns." — Ryan Stambaugh, Hellfire Suppression


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ew Year’s Eve began with a bang in New Brunswick that wasn’t the usual fireworks.

A call across emergency radio on the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2014, warned of a fire raging at a Fredericton recycling facility.

As it would turn out, the fire burned for more than half the day, leaving firefighters to drive some two kilometres from the facility to find the nearest water hydrant.

“We’re not in downtown Fredricton. We’re in an isolated area and hydrants are very expensive,” explains Brad Janes, a spokesperson for Fredericton Region Solid Waste.

It’s unknown how the fire started, but the factors for these types of fires are fairly finite: spontaneous combustion; legacy heat; arson; or simply just an absent-minded Fredericton resident in a hurry to take out the trash, to name a few.

462170419“You hope that what the public is putting in there is safe. But you could have a lithium battery inside an ice cream container if you’re not careful,” says Janes.

The fire levelled the recycling facility and burned up some $50,000 worth of recyclables.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first fire for this particular waste management complex on the outskirts of town. The complex includes a landfill, which has been the site of at least two other fires in recent years.

The lack of water resources around the landfill isn’t something that surprises Hellfire Suppression Services, an Alberta-based outfit that specializes in fighting the unusual types of fires that can develop at oil and gas facilities, and, of course, landfills.

“With landfills, you want to keep it out of sight and mind, but this takes you away from the town water and town sewers,” says Ryan Stambaugh, a senior fire control specialist with Hellfire. “Ninety per cent of the time, water logistics are the biggest hurdle,” he adds.

Stambaugh’s out-of-sight, out-of-my mind theory is illustrated perfectly in the comments made by the mayor of a small Saskatchewan town following a landfill fire in late 2013.

“Who wants to invest in a landfill? It’s the dump,” said Mayor John Enns-Wind.

Although the mayor later conceded that reinvestment in the landfill was important, the fire could have been avoided had town officials responded to a ministry warning issued during an inspection of the landfill two months before the fire.

Even so, the use of water for fire suppression isn’t as obvious an option as it may seem. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, “The application of large volumes of water may actually exacerbate a fire by contributing to the process of aerobic decomposition.” Water could also overwhelm the leachate collection system in the landfill, if it has one.

A 2012 landfill fire study undertaken in Victoria, Australia, took time to emphasize the issue of water availability at landfills. The study examined three landfill fires and presented the findings. Simply put, none of the landfills had water supplies that jived with compliance standards.

“None of the facilities had any reticulation system, hoses or mobile tanker capable of providing water for firefighting,” the study states. “On site staffhad no access to water to attempt to extinguish or control a fire despite that being part of the stated objective in relation to fires,” the study’s researcher’s added.

The Australian researchers recommend that when reticulated water supply is not adequate for firefighting purposes, landfill managers should maintain at least 50,000 litres of water on site. The study notes that even though Victoria’s farming community must equip tractors and machinery operating in contact with vegetation with fire extinguishers, no such regulations exist for the state’s landfills.

Landfill fires are not uncommon. Even less uncommon is the fact that these waste management complexes are the sites of recurring fires. To put this in perspective, take a look at data from the U.S. Fire Administration. Despite the fact the country has less than 2,500 landfills, the U.S. experiences more than 8,000 landfill fires per year. For illustration, that’s about four fires per facility per year.

Back in Canada, where fire data is scarcer, let’s rewind to the fall of 2014 — destination Iqaluit. By then, a landfill fire had been burning for nearly four months’ straight. Officials dubbed the debacle
“Dumpcano”, commenting on the landfill’s history of sporadically erupting into flames, like an actual volcano. The fire chief, who inadvertently helped craft the landfill’s nickname, speculated that the Dumpcano fire may have been smouldering for years, deeeeep, deep under piles of waste.

Stambaugh and the Hellfire team were called into control the fire three months after it had been burning, although there had been previous phone conversations during which Hellfire attempted to walk Iqaluit officials through the fire control process.

In the end, Iqaluit simply didn’t have the resources to extinguish the fire, be it water hydrant access, and even the simple fact that such a small community could not spare their municipal fire crew for the extraordinary amount of time it would take to extinguish such a deep-seated fire buried under tonnes of god knows what.

“We can see what’s happening with, say, a pressurized oil fire,” says Stambaugh. “With landfills, you don’t know what’s under there, and even the best records won’t tell you what’s there. It’s a lot of unknowns,” he adds.

Hellfire, combined with the efforts of Global Forensics from Red Deer, Alta., took 17 days to extinguish Dumpcano. It took almost as long to fly in all the firefighting equipment and prep for the challenge of conquering the 50,000 cubic-metre northern blaze.cal metals 085

Dumpcano’s close proximity to Frobisher Bay also proved problematic, as its tides can be extremely aggressive. Just like at the scene of the Fredericton recycling fire, there was a lack of useable water. Crews solved the problem by connecting reservoirs to nearby creeks for water.

In terms of the technique for battling the fire burning deep under Dumpcano, Stambaugh swears by the overhaul method. He says some industrial firefighting crews tend to experiment with “one-offs,” or methods that seem a bit more technically impressive, whether it be building concrete walls deep under the fire, or drilling holes in the landfill and pumping in nitrogen.

“Some landfills get talked into these one-off methods, then we end up getting called back in to use the overhaul method and actually put out the fire,” says Stambaugh.

The overhaul method isn’t glamorous. In fact, it sounds quite dull and time consuming. But Stambaugh says it gets the job done—case closed. The method, also known as the “Smokey the Bear Method”, simply involves filling bucket after bucket with smouldering material, wetting it, cooling it off, then restacking it, over and over again. It’s the precision and attention to detail that matters, says Stambaugh, because if even the tiniest smouldering piece of trash is missed, it could burn and burn, theoretically for years, until the hotspot reacts to a change in weather and wormholes its way through the refuse on a quest for oxygen to set it ablaze.

“If you miss something even the size of a football, and restack it, you’re right back in the same situation you started in,” says Stambaugh.

While the response team used the overhaul method, other workers continuously doused the smoking landfill heap with massive amounts of water.

Unfortunately, when Dumpcano “erupted”during summer 2014, another northern landfill fire was burning strong in Rankin Inlet. The fire started on June 24 and burned for 10 days, sending thick smoke across the small community of about 2,300. Local flights were cancelled due to visibility issues and residents were advised to stay indoors to avoid breathing any toxic fumes from the blaze. The local public works director told Nunatsiaq News that it was anybody’s guess how the fire began.

“When we’re bulldozing the landfill to level it out a bit, every time we go too low, we could see fire coming out,” said Joe Kaludjak.

The Rankin Inlet fire actually spread out into a series of smaller fires.

Prior to the Rankin fire, two other spring landfill fires broke out in the north. One, a 12-hour landfill fire out in Hay River, N.W.T., when a truck driver, unaware the cargo was on fire, dumped it on the landfill.  The other, a landfill fire in Fort Smith, N.W.T., which began in the landfill’s electronic waste section.

As far as Stambaugh is concerned, any increase in landfill fires is linked directly to consumers’ packaging penchant of the times. It wasn’t until plastic and synthetics production went into overdrive in the 1980s that landfill fires not only increased in frequency, but toxicity. Batteries, one of the most dangerous fire starter’s, also became more prolific.

Since the 2014 fire, Iqaluit officials have scrambled to make some changes to the remote city’s waste management practices, most notably, attempting to separate materials that pose a risk of combustion at the landfill, like mattresses, tires, flares, batteries, BBQ equipment, and very large pieces of steel and glass. Officials are also investigating options that could bring an incinerator to the northern community.

Nowadays, Stambaugh says a change in consumer habits has started to shift, but facilities are still dealing with untold tonnes of waste sitting in landfills from decades past.

Extinguishing Dumpcano and its toxic stench cost upwards of $3 million.

In the midst of the drama, Iqaluit’s fire chief told CBC News that the makeshift landfill used by the city near the old metal facility is another landfill fire in the making, or “just a recipe to have this happen again,” he said.


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