Trash Talk 

How to Prevent Landfill Fires

How to Prevent Landfill Fires

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Heat, oxygen and fuel—just these three ingredients can start a fire.

Some think a sudden fire in a landfill gets rid of waste and nothing valuable is lost. However, this is far from the truth. Landfill fires can be particularly deadly, endangering lives and damaging the environment.

They can smolder for weeks or months, releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere. Over 8000 landfill fires occur each year.

By following certain waste disposal protocols and designing sustainable modern landfills, these fires can be prevented.

What is a Landfill?

Landfills are one of the oldest methods of waste disposal. The majority of our kitchen waste or household junk usually ends up in a landfill.

When we toss out the garbage into a dumpster, the waste materials are deposited in a landfill located in the outskirts of the city.

Modern landfills are designed with complex layering systems. The layering system safely isolates any harmful by-products, preventing leakage and accidental fires. Before depositing the waste, it is carefully sorted and hazardous substances are removed.

Hazardous Waste Mass in Landfills

People often toss prohibited items into dumpsters. Due to mismanagement in the sorting process, such substances eventually find their way into landfills and can cause fires.

The chief culprits of landfill fires are items that are easily flammable and/or corrosive, such as:

  • Oils
  • Paints
  • Cleaning chemicals
  • Petrol
  • Gasoline

What are the Kinds of Landfill Fires?

If a fire suddenly breaks out in the city, you can count on firefighters to quickly reach the spot. However, depending on the severity of the situation, landfill fires aren’t that easy to put out.

For example, in December 1996, an underground fire in a landfill fire in Danbury, Connecticut, got out of control. It took weeks to extinguish the fire and the town had to install a gas recovery system.

Another deadly blaze took place at the Delta Shake and Shingle Landfill in North Delta, British Columbia in 1999. It took more than two months to put out.

Landfill Fire Categories

·       Surface Fires

Surface fires usually occur if the landfill surface does not use an inert daily or intermediate cover.

Daily cover refers to the layer of compressed soil deposited atop the landfill to reduce air emissions, prevent fires, and improve surface stability. Without the daily cover to act as a barrier between the atmosphere and the waste, certain substances can ignite.

A surface fire can also have natural causes, such as lightning. Particles in the landfill will burn deeper, resulting in deep-seated fires.

·       Deep-Seated Fires

Subsurface landfill fires are usually harder to extinguish, and can smolder for weeks or months at a time.

If the amount of oxygen inside the landfill increases, it leads to greater bacterial activity and decomposition. This is a process which generates a fair amount of heat, leading to spontaneous combustion within the landfill.

Underground landfill fires can damage the leachate liners and gas collection system and even lead to cave-ins. Poisonous gases like hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen dioxide are released. This can lead to respiratory and health issues for local residents.

In fact, if the toxic smoke begins to spread, the townspeople may be advised to stay indoors for a while! Evacuations are also possible if the toxicity is severe enough.

What Causes Landfill Fires?

Although landfill fires have few casualties, it results in $3 to $8 million in property loss each year.

An infographic on what causes landfill fires
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1. Presence of Hazardous Materials

An item is hazardous if it exhibits one or more of the following characteristics:

·       Flammable

·       Corrosive

·       Highly reactive

·       Toxic

Landfill fires are caused when hazardous materials ignite in the dump. Thus, by ensuring that hazardous wastes do not end up in the dumpsite in the first place, one can minimize the chances of a landfill fire.

2. Entry of Oxygen

Enormous heat is generated when waste decomposes in the landfill. If oxygen enters the landfill, it can hasten the decomposition process and cause a fire. Excess oxygen causes a spark if the landfill is poorly designed or air is trapped in the refuse itself.

3. Cracks in the Layering System

If the layering system in the landfill isn’t properly sealed or the waste isn’t correctly placed, it leads to rapid chemical reactions. This results in a blaze or a smoldering fire underground.

4. Arson

In some cases, the cause of landfill fire may not be due to carelessness, mismanagement or poor design, but arson. Tossing a burning cigarette, a lit match or hot material into the landfill without thinking about the consequences can trigger a landfill fire.

In fact, according to a study, the leading form of heat ignition in landfill fires is matches and 40% of landfill fires have been attributed to arson.

How to Prevent a Landfill Fire

Prevention is better than correction. Since landfill fires can quickly get out of control and have far-reaching effects on the environment and the atmosphere, it is important to take certain steps to prevent them.

There must be security protocols in place so that even if a fire breaks out, the landfill staff and the local fire department can quickly work together to manage and contain the situation.

An infographic on how to prevent landfill fires
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1. Comprehensive Sorting and Screening of Waste Materials

Before dumping the waste in the landfill, the staff must carefully sort through the garbage for hazardous and/or smoldering materials.

As citizens, we also play a part in minimizing landfill fires. Do not place  prohibited substances into the regular trash or dumpsters. This goes a long way in preventing hazardous fires.

2. Increased Vigilance in the Summer and Spring Seasons

Most landfill fires occur between March to August. The high temperatures during spring and summer increase the chances of spontaneous combustion within the landfill.

The landfill personnel must be extra careful during these months and immediately raise an alarm if a smoldering odor is emanating from the dumpsite.

3. Stringent Security Measures

Arson causes many landfill fires. Thus, there must be strict security protocols at the landfill. This prevents materials from smoldering in the dumpsite.

The landfill workers also should not smoke inside or near the premises.

4. Watch Out for Increase in Carbon Monoxide Levels

Monitoring landfill gases is particularly crucial. For underground fires, signs include toxic smoke, increased carbon monoxide in the landfill gas, and the presence of combustion residue.

5. Thermal Surveillance

We can see surface fires easily. However, its difficult to detect a subsurface fire. Thermal surveillance with the help of special infra-red cameras can detect elevated temperatures within the landfill and find the “hot spots” right away.

In fact, after a fire at the Intermountain Regional Landfill in 2011, the landfill staff purchased thermal cameras to act as an early warning system for any future incidents.

6. Monitor Potential Fire Sources

The landfill personnel should be on high alert for any changes in odor and temperature, and monitoring all potential fire sources.

Alongside elevated temperatures, the presence of soot in the gas collection system and changes in the chemistry of leachate can also indicate a fire.

7. Regular Upkeep of the Landfill

The landfill must be carefully maintained and regularly apprised for any leakages or faults in the following ways:

·       Segregate materials and remove combustible waste.

·       After deposition, cover the landfill daily to prevent oxygen from entering.

·       Compact wastes regularly to prevent the formation of methane pockets.

·       Convert gases in the collection system to energy or flare them.

·       Have “fire breaks” in the landfill perimeter to slow down the chances of a fire spreading.

·       Landfill owners should invest in fire suppression technology.

Only You Can Prevent Landfill Fires!

Smokey's cousin, Dumpy the Bear, says only you can prevent landfill fires!

Landfill fires are a public hazard. Taking small steps will reduce the number of these fires.

The next time you toss something into the trash, double-check to see if it’s hazardous or not.

If it is a hazardous or prohibited item, inform Discount Dumpster right away. We can help you find alternative means of waste disposal or direct you to a recycling facility.

Call to Learn More About Safe Disposal - (888) 316-7010

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