Long Hot Summer Is Prime Time For Phoenix Area Mulch Fires

July 15, 2013

Wildfires continue to burn around the state, but there is another problem in the Phoenix area that has local health officials and some politicians worried.

dump truck Farmer Ken Singh loads mulch into a dump truck for a delivery to Arizona State University. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

A recent series of fires at mulch plants has led to poor air quality and evacuations.

It’s a windy day in Laveen, a quiet farming community on the southwest side of Phoenix, but, this place is changing. In the past few years, a lot of homes have been built here, and now there are stucco subdivisions sitting right next to dairy farms. A few weeks ago a manure and mulch pile at one of the farms caught fire.

“I was walking out to my car, and I seen flames,” said Monika Rascon.

She spotted the fire as she was leaving Betty H. Fairfax High School where she works as an admissions clerk.

“And the flames were maybe as big as the school. They were really big, because you could see them perfectly like dancing and moving and all of the smoke and everything just started coming towards us," Rascon said.

Authorities evacuated dozens of students who were attending summer classes at Fairfax High School. They were forced to stay away for more than a week as the fire continued to smolder.

"I know a lot of the asthma students, they were complaining that they were having trouble breathing and stuff, so that was our main concern with them. It got kind of gross after a while,” said Rascon.

school Summer school students at Betty H. Fairfax High School in Laveen were forced to evacuate classes for more than a week in May. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

The blaze near Fairfax High is not an isolated incident. So far this summer, there have been four mulch fires in the Phoenix area.

“It’s that time of year,” said Phoenix Fire Captain Tony Mure.

After 20 years with the department, he has seen his share of mulch fires in the Valley, and he said it is a call firefighters hate to get.

“It’s usually hot, it’s usually in the middle peak time of the day, and so it’s 110 degrees outside, and this fire will not go out in 20 or 15 minutes like a house fire or in 30 minutes," Mure said. "We are going to be there for hours.”

Or firefighters may be on the scene for several days. Fighting mulch fires is very expensive, and it can be a dangerous job.

Mure said many fires start by spontaneous combustion. That is when Arizona’s triple digit temperatures heat the organic gasses generated in mulch piles that include dead grass and leaves, manure and wood chips. 

“Boom, we’ve got a fire!" said Mure.

He said the mulch producers know they are working with highly flammable materials. That is part of the process of making the stuff that is used for landscaping projects, said Mure. 

“The people that have these businesses actually have these giant deep thermometer probes, and they have to monitor the temperatures deep within the center of the pile," Mure said. There are currently 15 commercial mulch producers in the Phoenix area. They must follow city guidelines regulating how big the mulch piles can be.

Ken Singh uses a tractor to load mulch onto a dump truck at his farm in Scottsdale. He has been making mulch for 10 years and has never had a fire, because he said he tries to do everything right. 

“Well, I turn my piles based on temperature, I control my moisture and I have rows between," Singh said. "I can get to every pile. I have open space, and I don’t stack em’ too high, because when you stack em high you’re going to have a problem.”

mulch farm This mulch farm in Laveen caught fire in May and forced the evacuation of nearby Betty Fairfax H. High School for more than a week, (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

But back in Laveen, Democratic State Representative Ruben Gallego said that is not enough. He lives around the corner from the mulch fire that started a few weeks ago. He is pushing the city of Phoenix to require mulch producers to install fire hydrants on their land, because many do not have them now. 

“For one of the mulch producers, this has been the third fire in three years, and they just have an attitude that they have a right to do this, and I think that is just irresponsible on their part,” said Gallego.

Gallego said he is concerned the state is facing federal fines for air pollution violations that mulch fires contribute to. That iswhere the Maricopa County Air Quality Department steps in to issue health warnings, according to agency spokesman Bob Huhn. 

“We send out monitors and we place them on each side of the fire, east and west, and this way we can monitor the smoke coming out,” said Huhn.Heavy particulates in the smoke from mulch fires can make people sick, especially if they already suffer from breathing problems, and with summer only half over, it is anybody’s guess if more mulch fires are on the way.

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