If there is one group of volunteers that deserves infinitely more recognition than they receive, it is our local volunteer fire companies. They spend countless hours training for every kind of emergency imaginable, and one of these is landfill fires.
On Saturday afternoon, June 3rd, there was a major fire at the Lycoming County Resource Management Services facility, also known as the landfill. And then, not long after midnight on Wednesday, June 7th, there was another smaller fire there. Over a dozen different fire companies responded to these fires, and they were certainly needed, as any fire in a landfill is very, very scary.
Landfill fires are completely different from other fires. They burn down, not up. “These fires are extremely difficult to fight,” explains Jarvis Jackson, president of Key Safety Services, a major industrial safety company. “Most people don’t understand that an underground fire is a slow smoldering fire with a wide range of temperatures. As it burns in the subsurface, it creates a cavity that encourages air movement. Not only does it become a self-feeding fire, but it also becomes dangerous because there is the risk that the heavy equipment used to fight the fire can fall into one of these cavities.”
In May of 1962, the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, had a fire that started in a trash dump on the edge of town. It went underground, resulting in the entire community of 1,400 people being forced to abandon their homes permanently. Since January of this year, there have been 600 landfill fires in our state, all of which, fortunately, have been contained. Other states are not so fortunate; for example, St. Clair County in Alabama has an underground landfill fire that has been burning for six months.
Fortunately, our county landfill is operated by very professional operational personnel, among them volunteer firefighters themselves. In fact, the Director Jason Yorks is a member of the Independent Hose Company in Jersey Shore. When the fires occurred, the fire companies responded, but also the staff from the landfill responded to the emergency, even those on vacation.
The coordination required for an operation like this is challenging, and it speaks volumes that our county and surrounding counties have firefighters from different companies with the skills and training to synchronize their efforts as effectively as they did. It took some 300,000 gallons of water to ensure that these fires were put out for certain. This came from the tanker fire trucks operating in unison, taking turns pouring 12,500 gallons a minute (!) on the fires.
Yet, it brings up the important question — how did these fires start? Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the cause, although the predominance of these fires of late in almost every landfill in our state, as well as throughout the country, points to items that should not be put into a landfill.
These include, but are not limited to, electric waste such as televisions, computers, monitors, printers, VCRs, cell phones, telephones, radios, microwave ovens, used batteries, automotive fluids (fuel, antifreeze, oils), paint, lacquer, stain, thinner, varnish, wood preservatives, and chemicals of any kind (e.g., pool chemicals, pesticides, weed killer). Some items can be dropped off directly at the landfill or the Transfer Station located at 1475 West Third Street in Williamsport. Check the county’s website, https://www.lyco.org/Departments/Resource-Management-Services, to see what can be accepted and what cannot.
Used batteries are the biggest concern, especially lithium batteries, which are extremely sensitive to high temperatures and inherently flammable. Two local stores, Staples and Lowes, have long lists of electrical items that they accept for recycling. Check their websites for a listing of the items and times when they are accepted.
Just last week, landfill workers discovered two rechargeable drill batteries at the facility. One was luckily found before it went through the system. However, the other was baled together with some plastic and caught fire. The smoke was noticed right away. Both these drill batteries could have been taken to Lowes for safe disposal/recycling.
As Smokey Bear would tell us, only you can prevent forest fires. It is the same with the careless actions of putting flammable waste in our garbage or recycle bins. We do not need any more fires at our landfill — ever.