It began rather quietly as a underground fire at a dump in Canada's remote northern reaches. Then in May, the fire "erupted," spewing forth flames and toxic fumes over the city of Iqaluit. Faced with a football pitch-sized smouldering dump fire, this week the city council finally scrounged up the $2.2 million to put it out. How the hell does a dump fire spontaneously ignite—and why is it so expensive to put out?
Dump fires are distressingly common, actually. One estimate puts the number in the US at 8,300 a year, but the size and longevity of Iaqluit's is unusual. Ever since the fire chief likened the dump to a volcano, we've been saddled with the unholy portmanteau of "dumpcano." You can even find the dumpcano on Twitter these days.
But dumpcanos don't just create themselves. A mix of bad luck and bad policies are behind this massive dump fire.
Footage of the dumpcano set to some rather dramatic music. Top image is a screen capture from this video. Carbon Capture/YouTube
The Birth of a "Dumpcano"
Iaqluit's is one of the small minority of dump fires that spontaneously ignited; that's the bad luck. Spontaneous combustion can happen for a number of reasons: rotting organic material naturally gets hot as it decomposes, batteries can short circuit, and smouldering things can be accidentally buried.
But Iaqluit's dump fire was the fourth since December, a pattern that suggests something more than bad luck. As reporter and Iqaluit resident Peter Worden writes in Vice that, until 2002, Iaqluit routinely did open-pit burns in its landfill. Then concerned citizens sued the city to get them stop. That's good news for anyone who wants to breathe clean air (at least when accidental fires aren't burning), but that also meant more and more waste was just piling up, collecting more and more fuel and more and more possible sources of spontaneous combustion.
Worden goes on to note in Vice that part of the reason there's so much trash in Iaqluit is that there is virtually no recycling in the city. The city is so remote that transporting cardboard to recycling plants just isn't worth the cost of fuel. So everyone's boxes and old futons and leftover paint and batteries and kitchen rubbish are all left to stew and smoulder in the big old town dump.
One solution, an engineer tells Vice, is sorting out cardboard, wood, and paper, which can be cleanly burned off. That'll reduce the volume of rubbish (and dumpcano fuel) in the future, but it's a bit too late for this fire.
The Death of a "Dumpcano"
At first, Iaqluit's fire department decided to just let the dumpcano burn itself out. A shifting pile of hot garbage is pretty dangerous for firefighters, and it would have sucked up millions of gallons of water the city didn't have to spare. The wait-it-out strategy, however, obviously did not work.
On Wednesday, the city council finally approved $2.2 million for a plan to drown the dumpcano after all. Fourteen firefighters will work 12 hours a day for a month to soak the waste pile in water. It's pretty much a brute force method, but it's cheaper than more high-tech alternatives.
The original plan was more ambitious and also twice as expensive. That would have involved a building a giant saltwater tank in which smouldering rubbish was dunked one clawful at a time. Another way to put out dump fires involves depriving it of oxygen, either with foam or injecting an inert gas.
Hopefully, the month-long water offensive will put out the dumpcano once and for all. Let this be a very expensive lesson in taking out your waste the right way.