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Exploring the causes of landfill fires

Anna Pope

Tontitown Fire Chief Mark Ramsey and his wife knew they would live near a landfill when they moved to Tontitown.

"Yeah, I started as a volunteer and part-time fireman with the Tontitown Fire Department in 2016," Ramsey said. "(I) Jumped on board with the City of Tontitown full time and 2019 as the fire marshal.

Since he started working at the city’s fire department, Ramsey said the department has responded to 13 fires from 2016 to June 2023 at the Eco Vista Landfill. He worked in the roles of a firefighter and fire investigator in the responses.

Ramsey said the department can control certain fires, but he is worried about the more severe fires the department helped extinguish. He said in one incident, 100,000 gallons of water was used and they had to bury the fire to put it out.

"We've brought in our mutual aid and automatic aid departments to help combat those fires," Ramsey said. "We've had 10 different departments on scene before, and there's not enough trucks, not enough water, not enough personnel to do a dent of damage against a fire out there. The only thing that works is burying these fires. "

When a fire is buried, Ramsey said it is more difficult to find out the cause. For him, the trash service is necessary but he is concerned about the fires.

The Tontitown landfill is growing because it needs more room. It's the main landfill for Northwest Arkansas, an area where the population is expected to double and reach about one million people in 2045.

Tontitown residents and its local government are against landfill expansions. Residents cite health and environmental concerns, including air and water quality.

Thousands of landfill fires burn across the nation every year, according to theU.S. Fire Administration.

Landfills often act to extinguish fires. This includes smothering them with soil, moving burning material to safe areas or temporarily shutting down the gas extraction systembefore reaching out to local fire departments. When the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is informed of fires or complaints, it investigates them.

Fires in a landfill can be on the surface or underground. Peak times for landfill fires are spring and summer, and there are other factors like gas production.

A common gas landfills produce is methane when trash decomposes. Wen Zhang, an associate professor in the University of Arkansas’ Civil Engineering Department, said methane production is not consistent. She said it depends on the type of waste, how much trash is thrown away and how fast the material degrades.

"Like time also plays a role here, you know?" Zhang said. "Maybe during the more active years there's more methane produced and then there could be more fire. But over time, when the methane production starts to decrease or eventually, just becomes less and less and people probably don't need to worry about that so much."

Landfills can prevent fires through management like inspecting incoming waste.

Some landfills like Eco Vista, have a landfill gas collection system to draw out methane. Gas is extracted from the landfill through a networks made of wells and pipes, then it's processed and is turned into energy. This helps reduce emission and other hazards connected to landfill gas.

"I do know they are connected with Ozark Electric so basically, it's almost like everyone's solar system where they can sell this electricity to Ozark Electric so, that's in general how it works," Zhang said.

Ozarks at Large reached out to Waste Management to speak with someone about mitigation practices, landfills responses to fires and what can be expected as more trash is produced in the region for this story. A spokesperson for the company said it did not have any information to provide at this time.

There have been different causes of fires at Eco Vista including vehicle fires and a battery that was improperly disposed. The landfill does not dispose of hazardous material. Its class 1 landfill collects household waste and its class 4 landfill takes in construction materials.

Zhang said it's good for people to know what can be thrown away at the landfill.

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Anna Pope is KUAF's growth impact reporter and a Report for America corps member
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