A Newsworthy Facility Fire & How To Avoid One
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“The yard is on fire!” said the person on the other end of my cell phone when I finally picked it up on the fourth call around 10:45 pm.

Mondays are typically a tiring day; lots of challenges are lurking under the surface of the weekend and waiting to emerge on the following business day; “to-do” items forgotten until the next week make their first appearance, and a restful Sunday stands in stark comparison to the flood of emails, phone calls, and meetings.

When I finally made it to our 27-acre site on August 13th, 2018 around 11:15 pm, my Monday headaches had only just begun. It was a spectacular site to behold, with approximately 8,000 cubic yards of mulch ablaze. The fire had already spread to a $600,000 star screener, which we eventually lost to the flames. We managed to evacuate the remaining equipment from the inferno and then began to assess the task at hand. Attempting to squelch the fire with water would have been a fruitless effort. Heading it off at the pass was a far better idea, so we decided to douse the piles around the perimeter of the blaze.

This particular pile of compost possessed the ideal properties for spontaneous combustion. It was “double-stacked” and this 18’ high pile was the oldest one on the yard, static for about three months prior. We had just had a half-inch rain the Sunday before, which simultaneously increased biological activity and created a sort of seal on the crust of the pile to trap the heat. The only ingredient missing was oxygen, which we readily supplied that day when we broke open the southern side of the pile for screening. The site is about 60 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico but the prevailing southerly wind provided all the oxygen the pile needed for ignition and by 10:00PM the flames had spread across the whole pile.

By 6:00 a.m. the following morning the flames were almost completely extinguished through the help of an experienced operator, who used an excavator to turn the top layer of the pile and suffocate the flames. The skill level was impressive to watch.

The warning is this: pay attention to the temperature of your piles or hire someone to do it for you. A temperature reading during the week prior would’ve exposed a problem. Don’t let this happen to you, use best practices when it comes to composting.

Grant Williamson, CCOM, is the General Manager of The Ground Up in Houston, TX. He has 15 years of experience leading companies in the energy, environmental, and green waste recycling industries, six of which have been dedicated to the commercial mulch/compost industry. He holds a B.S. in Finance and M.S. in Organizational Strategy from the University of Texas at Dallas.