A Valuable Partnership

Getting out in front of fires caused by the storage of recycling materials

According to a recent news story (on CBS Interactive, Inc.), there was a waste paper recycling fire of note in Willimantic, Connecticut, on January 28, 2018. The location of the fire was about 30 miles east of Hartford and, according to the CBS affiliate (WFSB), could potentially burn for days. Heavy smoke was produced, forcing the closure of Eastern Connecticut State University and potentially Windham Public Schools, according to the local news reports. The stories did not indicate whether people would have to be evacuated, but some with breathing conditions were being advised to stay indoors and avoid the smoke.

I was unable to get an update on the status of the fire as I wrote this article, but my point in bringing it up is not the individual fire. Many of us have seen severe fires in our careers, and anyone who has responded to yard debris (e.g., bark dust) fires knows they can burn for months underneath the surface. So, why is this fire different? Because it could happen more frequently.

Change in Policy

I recently heard from a friend who retired from the United Kingdom fire service and is now working for the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority in Australia. Tony McGuirk, together with Jeremy Fewtrell of Fire and Rescue New South Wales, has produced a white paper on the topic of interest to the fire service in the United States.

Of note is a change in policy from the Chinese government where it will no longer accept waste materials from other nations, including the United States. Tony estimates that it was receiving 7.3 million metric tons of recycling material annually, and with this change that amount of material, especially the low-grade items, would have nowhere to go. The material had been imported to China by manufacturers for their own use and included plastic, textiles, and mixed paper.

Essentially, China’s change to using domestic materials instead means that there will be no place like home for these materials to stack up. Tony and Jeremy predicted that, because of this, the fires we could be facing will be high profile (i.e., major community disruption and visibility), be complex, last for long periods, and be very expensive to deal with. And, notably because of Tony’s perspective in the new job, they will cause significant environmental damage.

Community Impact

Are these fires likely to change the data of what we see nationally? No. Most people will still die in fires that occur where people live and sleep. But anyone who has served in the local fire service knows how fires like this can set a community off, disrupting commerce and daily lives and garnering a great deal of attention. But even without the change in Chinese policy, we are seeing an increase in the storage of recycling materials.

What can we expect to see more of? Tires. Used oils. Wood waste. Solvents. Batteries. Plastics. Low-grade paper products. Well, you get the picture. But what can we do about it? That is where Tony and Jeremy have a very cogent point to make.

Environmental Influence

As in many cases, it is our partners who may ultimately carry more clout than we (in the fire service) do to combat safety problems. The environmental laws on hand to deal with products like these may provide us with much greater enforcement capacity than we have in our own fire codes. Tony and Jeremy are espousing the benefits of a partnership between the fire service and the environmental protection fields to deal with this issue proactively. Their experience in doing so resulted in a partnership in New South Wales known as the Environmental Incident Management System (ENVIMS).

That partnership allows them to preplan at waste management sites throughout New South Wales and prepare incident management plans that can help manage the fire risk and environmental damage that fires in these facilities would produce. These kinds of fires require a fresh look at firefighting tactics, as water and foams typically used can increase the environmental damage from a fire. That won’t be new to many in the fire service, but, as important from my perspective, their ability to levy fees to fund the new program, and to levy fines against violators, gives them the ability to get ahead of the situation and prevent fires from happening in the first place.

A partnership with others, including the Environmental Protection Agency, is not entirely new. My friend Becky Booker, in Wisconsin, has been working with them for years on placement of radon detection devices during home fire safety visits. But this new concept from Australia raises the bar considerably and takes full advantage of a community’s sensitivity to environmental damage when members may not care about potential fires.

Fires like this may not happen frequently—but they may be happening more often. And we may just be able to make use of valuable partnerships to get out in front of them. I will be following up on more details about the situation here in the United States, but those with an interest in learning more can reach Tony (and Jeremy) via Tony.McGuirk@epa.nsw.gov.au.

By Jim Crawford

Jim Crawford, FIFireE, is project manager for Vision 20/20 and a retired fire marshal and deputy chief of the Vancouver (WA) Fire Department. He is a member of the NFPA technical committee on professional qualifications for fire marshals, a former member of the Standards Council for the NFPA, a fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, a life member of the IAFC, and past president of the International Fire Marshal’s Association. Crawford is the author of Fire Prevention Organization and Management and is an editorial board member of FireRescue. He has received the R. Wayne Powell Excellence in Fire Prevention Award, the Dr. Anne Phillips award for leadership in fire and life safety education from the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the International Fire Service Training Association, the “Fire Protection Person of the Year” from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, and the Percy Bugby Award from the International Fire Marshal’s Association.

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