Landfill fire likely to burn for ‘a few more days’
Updated 9:30 a.m. Friday: Caribbean Utilities Company officials said their main offices on Sparkys Drive in Industrial Park re-opened after being closed for most of Thursday afternoon.
CUC customers were sent to Westshore mall on Seven Mile Beach for services while the main office was shuttered.
The Cayman International School remained closed on Friday.
Hope Academy in Grand Harbour also remained closed Friday. However, that was for a long-planned professional development day, not because of the fire. The school closed around noon Thursday over concerns about smoke in the area from the landfill blaze.
The blaze at the George Town landfill forced the closure of two private schools and the offices of Grand Cayman’s power company Thursday.
The Cayman International School was shuttered all day Thursday, due to potential health and safety concerns arising from the landfill fire.
In addition, Caribbean Utilities Company closed its offices earlier than normal because of smoke near the building, and Hope Academy in Grand Harbour closed just after noon due to worsening smoke conditions from the fire.
A government statement issued Thursday afternoon said the landfill was likely to burn “a few more days” and that Cayman Islands Fire Service crews would stay on scene in shifts until it was extinguished.
“It’s not going to be out [Thursday], and certainly not by the end of [Friday],” Acting Chief Fire Officer Rosworth McLaughlin said.
The shifting winds also pushed smoke into the area of Owen Roberts International Airport during the day Thursday, causing some visibility issues. There had been no reports by press time of any flights being affected.
A government statement issued late Wednesday afternoon indicated a large pile of residential garbage that caught fire in the early morning and burned through the day had been “contained.”
However, pictures sent to the Caymanian Compass from overnight Wednesday and into Thursday morning showed the landfill blaze getting larger as a deep-seated fire continued to burn at the 70- to 80-foot-high trash heap, one of the highest points in the George Town landfill.
“Containment” in the context of firefighting means that flames were not spreading to other areas. Firefighters were having significant difficulty getting to the seat of the blaze, partly because of a lack of functioning excavation equipment at the site.
“The fire is contained to the landfill area and is not an imminent threat to any buildings or homes,” a statement from the government’s Ministry of Home Affairs read.
On Thursday, prevailing winds shifted, causing the engulfed area of the trash mound to change from the western side to the eastern side, officials said. The trash mound will eventually have to be turned over to expose the flames so crews can extinguish each burning section.
“Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of water and equipment at this time,” according to the ministry statement. Water supplied to landfill firefighting efforts typically comes from nearby dikes. There are no fire hydrants on the property.
Health Minister Osbourne Bodden, who has oversight responsibility for the landfill, said two bulldozers, two excavators and a trash compactor kept at the landfill, which either would have assisted firefighting efforts or might have helped prevent a fire from occurring, had all broken down. Replacement costs are expected to be between $1 million and $1.5 million.
Chief McLaughlin said four excavators had been brought into the landfill site by Thursday to help get flames under control.
Although the smoke appeared to have cleared the immediate area just north of the landfill by early Thursday, officials at the Cayman International School were taking no chances. School Director Jeremy Moore said classes were canceled all day Thursday. The school is located between the landfill and Camana Bay.
“We’re erring on the side of caution,” Mr. Moore said. “We moved our outdoor activities indoors [Wednesday], including our after-school activities. There was zero impact from the smoke on our campus during school hours [Wednesday]. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that the landfill situation is causing the school to close here [Thursday].” Hope Academy in Grand Harbour was also closed after midday Thursday when the winds switched. A school employee said some 130 children from pre-kindergarten to Year 12 were sent home from 12:15 p.m. because of concerns about smoke.
Caribbean Utilities Company sent all non-essential personnel home before 2 p.m. Thursday, according to spokesman Neil Murray. Administrative and customer service offices were closed as a precaution, he said, although some staff stayed on.
All crews in the CUC power generating facility adjacent to the Sparkys Drive offices were evacuated because the smoke in the area, just south of the landfill, had grown too intense, he said.
“I looked out and thought it was actually raining, but it was really smoke from the fire,” Mr. Murray said.
Other activities were canceled due to the smoke from the fire, including a Wednesday night rooftop yoga class taught at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites by instructor Chantelle Cooper. “I can’t have you all taking your big deep yoga breaths with the noxious fumes swirling around!” Ms. Cooper said in an email to students.
The smoke and smell from the fire did get around. The Caymanian Compass tracked reports from across Grand Cayman, noting that odorous fumes and smoke were seen and smelled from North West Point Road in West Bay to Savannah-Newlands.
In Nelson’s Quay on Governors Sound, residents reported a low-lying cloud with a chemical smell of garbage mixed with burning rubber in the area between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. Rain that fell later in the morning appeared to disperse it.
Snug Harbour resident Karin McGrath said she opened the door of her home Thursday around 7:20 a.m. and got a face full of smoke while taking out the garbage. Mrs. McGrath said she hustled her children into her vehicle to go to school and then stayed away from home for hours, hoping the smoke and accompanying stench would go away.
“It was very smoky clear across the street, and it smelled kind of ‘metalish,’” Mrs. McGrath said.
Around 6 a.m. local photographer Ash Sands saw much the same scene outside his home on Canal Point Drive. He drove to Camana Bay to see if he could get some photos from atop one of the multistory garages there. However, Mr. Sands said the fumes were simply too intense.
“It smelled to me like someone burning PVC pipe,” he said.
Later Thursday, residents and businesses were feeling the effects of the landfill fire. Cayman Islands Yacht Club restaurant general manager Matt Moore said smoke stalled just over the George Town Barcadere restaurant’s outdoor eating area around 11 a.m. Fortunately, few diners were there. The cloud had largely dispersed by lunchtime.
“It was coming right over the marina, it could have been very bad for us,” Mr. Moore said. “It definitely wasn’t [the smell of] burning cedar, that’s for sure.”
Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie said her staff smelled smoke from the landfill fire filtering into the department’s Industrial Park office building around noon Thursday.
The Dart group of companies, which owns and manages Camana Bay, said ther
e had been some effects from the dump fire over the past two days. “There has been lingering smoke in some areas of Camana Bay, but no real impact on the town center so far. We are closely monitoring conditions to keep staff and tenants informed,” a statement from the company read.
Even well outside the islands, the landfill fire was getting attention. The Compass learned Thursday that pilots flying into Grand Cayman Wednesday afternoon spotted the dump blaze from up to 200 miles away.
In the midst of all the happenings, an Internet petition was circulated advocating for a “Dump Free Cayman.”
According to the petition: “We do not request that the dump simply be moved in its current state to another part of the island, but that a modern high-tech waste management facility be built on another site while the current site is capped. This is the only financially and environmentally viable option. The people of this island deserve a Dump Free Cayman.”
The chairman of the Coalition to Keep Bodden Town Dump Free, which opposed a previous government proposal to build a new waste management facility in Midland Acres, denied any knowledge of the Web-based petition.