Firefighters battled landfill blaze for nearly 20 hours

A tire and scrap metal fire that sent black smoke billowing over George Town for hours Friday took 19 hours and 49 minutes to entirely extinguish.  

Cayman Islands Fire Service crews reported the official start time of the blaze as 4:12 a.m. Friday and said the fire was out by 12:01 a.m. Saturday.  

However, even then it wasn’t over. Deputy Chief Fire Officer Craig McCoy said fire crews stayed on scene until nearly 8 a.m. Saturday to ensure no flare ups occurred in the burning mass of metal and rubber.  

“There have been flare ups there [with landfill fires] over the years,” Mr. McCoy said. “They were just making sure there weren’t any residual spots to flare back up.”  

Late Friday night, fire crews were still using excavators to turn over tires and make sure nothing underneath the pile of rubbish was still hot. Luckily, Deputy Chief McCoy said, flames did not spread to a large pile of tires next to where Friday’s inferno started.  

Although a number of fire engines were on scene during the course of the landfill fire, Mr. McCoy said other units were being held in reserve at the Frank Sound fire station, in case other fire calls were made. 

“We were using two ladder trucks, a tanker, two pumper trailers and an aerodrome [fire] truck,” he said. “If something had happened elsewhere, we would still have to respond.”  

By Monday, no one had determined an official cause of the fire. Mr. McCoy said it was entirely possible that some of the gas and propane tanks discarded in the scrap metal may have spontaneously combusted.  

Friday’s blaze revealed a number of problems at the landfill, according to Health Minister Osbourne Bodden.  

Mr. Bodden said the scrap metal pile where the fire originated contained old 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 any more junked cars over there. They’re not removing the fuel cells from the crushed vehicles.”  

In addition, initial firefighting efforts were hampered when there was a problem with two excavators at the landfill and they 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 put out the seat of the blaze. 

“Apparently, the excavators on site broke down,” Mr. McCoy said. 

The excavators haven’t worked in some time, apparently, and Minister Bodden said the equipment had not been replaced due to “lack of budget.”  

Another excavator was brought in to assist firefighters, and a steady supply of water was established quickly from a nearby dike road.  

Although there have been a number of large fires at the George Town landfill over the years, very few, if any, have involved burning tires – which was the reason for the large columns of black smoke that could be seen drifting over Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach on Friday.  

Tire fires, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are generally more serious than common landfill fires, more difficult to extinguish and harder to clean up.  

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.  

Dump fire B-5

Billowing smoke from Friday’s fire can been seen over George Town. – PHOTO: CHRIS COURT