Massive fire sends smoke through George Town as tourism high season kicks off
A landfill fire apparently fueled by propane and gas tank explosions sent a huge plume of black smoke over a large area of George Town Friday morning.
Department of Environmental Health crews on the scene said flames were burning a large pile of tires and scrap metal near the northwestern end of the landfill property.
Black and gray smoke billowing from the blaze could be seen as far away as Governor’s Beach on Seven Mile Beach. Giant plumes of smoke were blowing directly west over Cayman’s largest tourism center and could be seen from the other side of the island as far as Red Bay.
The fire was believed to have started between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. No cause was immediately determined.
Deputy Chief Fire Officer Craig McCoy said flames appeared to have broken out in a pile of baled scrap metal and then spread to the larger tire pile nearby. Most of the firefighting efforts were aimed at keeping the flames from spreading to an even larger pile of tires next to the bonfire of rubber and metal.
“The wind is helping them [firefighters] because it’s actually blowing away from the tires,” Mr. McCoy said. Firefighters hoped to have the main portion of the blaze contained by Friday afternoon, though it was anyone’s guess as to when the tires would finally burn out.
The fire was contained from spreading to the main waste disposal areas, government officials said Friday.
Health Minister Osbourne Bodden, who visited the scene around mid-morning Friday, said he had concerns with a number of issues surrounding the blaze.
Mr. Bodden said the scrap metal pile where the fire originated contained junked cars and some propane tanks as well. There was obviously some fuel left in the discarded tanks, the minister said, because a number of small explosions were heard coming from inside the burning area.
“It’s quite a risky situation,” Mr. Bodden said. “ I think we have to look at the protocol on that before we put anymore junked cars over there. They’re not removing the fuel cells from the crushed vehicles.
“That’s where the fire started, and then it ran into the tires,” he said.
In addition, initial firefighting efforts were hampered when two excavators on site could not be used to dig up the burning piles of rubbish. During such fires, Deputy Chief McCoy said, fire crews must dig down into the mounds of trash and extinguish the seat of the blaze.
Another excavator from the National Roads Authority was brought in to assist firefighters, but Mr. McCoy said he could not estimate when the blaze might be put out entirely. Officials hoped the blaze would be doused by Friday night.
“Over the years, we’ve had fires burn for days there,” he said.
The excavation machines at the landfill have been out of order “for a while,” according to Minister Bodden. He said the landfill excavators had not been replaced due to “lack of budget.”
Adequate water supply
Water supply was obtained from a dike at the edge of the landfill property, and Deputy Chief McCoy said, once the supply was established, it never faltered.
Also, the wind was blowing at a good clip almost due west. This kept the smoke from filtering down into the George Town/Seven Mile Beach area and bothering visitors and residents. A small section of the Esterley Tibbetts Highway was covered in smoke during the height of Friday morning’s rush hour, however.
“It was far away from the cruise ship [in the George Town harbor], and the main thing was that it wasn’t low smoke,” Mr. Bodden said.
There were no reports as of press time Friday of anyone being sickened from the landfill fire smoke. However, Ministry of Home Affairs officials urged anyone experiencing ill effects from the smoke to seek medical assistance.
Dr. Maysson Sallam, who works with the Department of Environmental Health, said continous exposure to chemicals from tire smoke can cause serious health problems, but in Friday’s case, the tradewinds took care of most of the smoke in short order.
Tire fires difficult to extinguish
Tire fires, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are generally more serious than common landfill fires as they are more difficult to extinguish and harder to clean up afterward.
“These fires threaten pollution of the air, soil and water,” the EPA’s website notes. “The EPA, states, municipalities and private companies have spent millions of dollars cleaning up tire fires across the country.”
The U.S. agency does not consider scrap tires hazardous waste. However, burning tires can break down into hazardous gas compounds. In addition, the average tire for a passenger car is estimated to produce more than two gallons of oil when burned, according to the U.S. Rubber Manufacturers Association.
“Oil that exudes ground and surface water as a result of tire fires is a significant environment pollutant,” the EPA states.
Gas pollutants from the fires can include benzene and butadiene, both considered toxic hydrocarbons.
The Cayman Islands government attempted in 2012 to solicit bids for the removal of tires at the George Town landfill. For reasons Department of Environmental Health officials could not explain, the 2012 tender was cancelled. It was expected to be reissued in 2014.