The Cayman Islands Fire Service has responded to 21 fires at the George Town Landfill over the last two and a half years.
According to Chief Fire Officer Dennom Bodden, 10 fires occurred on the landfill property in 2006, five fires occurred in 2007 and six fires have occurred so far this year, including a blaze fire crews responded to last week.
Mr. Bodden said every time his officers have to respond to fires at the landfill site there’s a risk, but he admits solid waste officials have done a better job in recent years of trying to prevent such fires.
‘They have been trying to mitigate somewhat against these things happening,’ Mr. Bodden said. ‘They’re putting layers of marl in between the trash, and they have some deep wells on the landfill site.’
Chief Bodden said the problem firefighters come across at the landfill is when fires start under piles of trash or manage to burrow their way deep into the refuse. When that occurs, fire crews have to spend hours, even days, putting out the flames.
Firefighters spent 12 hours battling a 12 May fire that spread over a large area of the residential trash pile, but which did not manage to burrow too deeply into the garbage. On 31 July, 2007, huge flames again enveloped the residential trash area of the landfill. Firefighters attended the scene from about 2.50pm that day until 3am the next morning.
Last week, Mr. Bodden said, crews from George Town and West Bay actually had to monitor the fire, which broke out around 7.30pm Tuesday until about noon Wednesday.
No one was seriously hurt in any of the fires.
What causes the landfill fires in some cases isn’t immediately clear, but the Department of Public Health’s Solid Waste Director Sean McGinn said it usually has to do with what’s being thrown out.
‘Eighty to 85 per cent of fires that we get are from hot loads, coals from a barbeque for example, or if a restaurant puts something hot in their trash,’ Mr. McGinn said. ‘If it’s not noticed right away it gives (the fire) a chance to get going.’
Mr. McGinn said it is possible chemical combustion between certain household chemicals might lead to fires at the landfill, but he said such situations would be extremely rare. He also said solid waste employees are not allowed to smoke at the landfill site.
There have been concerns raised in recent years about the possibility of methane gas build up under some of the landfill mounds, which have grown over the last 20 years. However, Mr. McGinn said the George Town Landfill was not considered a particularly old one by international standards.
‘Is it going to blow up? No,’ he said. ‘There is (methane) gas being made. But last year we did an exploratory dig and didn’t find anything.
‘Is there a possibility of people getting hurt (during fires)? Yes; not only the fire department, but our (solid waste) guys as well.’
Landfill management has made a number of improvements, including the addition of a water tanker, which Solid Waste Department staff uses to attack fires. Mr. McGinn said staff members are being trained in how to handle some fire incidents.
There are deep wells on the landfill site, and Mr. McGinn said the Home Gas Ltd. Company has recently provided a six inch water pump for the fire department’s use.
The landfill has also adopted a method over the last few years of placing layers of soil between piles of residential trash. Mr. McGinn said the general rule is to try and separate one week’s worth of trash from another.
‘What we do now is basically bury the garbage in cells,’ Mr. McGinn said.
However, there’s been a problem with this process recently.
‘The availability and cost of marl is just killing us,’ he said.
Mr. McGinn said the Solid Waste Department intends to purchase a type of foam spray to place in between the ‘cells’ of garbage at the landfill. The product has concrete and other fire retardant chemicals in it. He said the department will soon go out to bid on the product.
Solid waste has funding in its budget over the next year to buy the product, which Mr. McGinn said should save money in the long run as opposed to buying more fill.
‘(The spray) even comes in colours,’ he said. ‘We can have a nice green landfill if you want.’