Fire chief says debris pile fire near McGee Lake nearly out

Kirk Starratt
Published on March 29, 2016

MCGEE LAKE - Nearly a week after the initial call came in to the Kentville Fire Department, it looks like a fire burning in a towering pile of demolition debris and other waste is nearly extinguished.

READ: Full coverage of the fire.

The fire in a large pile of waste at South Mountain Construction ands Debris Recycling Ltd. on North River Road began March 22. It led to Environment Canada issuing an air quality warning for Kings County and engaged the resources of fire departments across Kings County and beyond. Although estimates of the size of the debris pile vary, it initially towered several storeys high.

Kentville Fire Chief Ryan MacEachern said in a March 28 interview  the apparent cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion. This was also the cause of a fire in a similar debris pile at the site two years ago.

He said the fire started burning so deep in the pile that someone would have had to tunnel in to the middle to light it.

“If it was a fire lit on the outside of that pile, it wouldn’t have went that deep that fast,” MacEachern said.

He likens it to a large pile of wood shavings or chips at a sawmill.

“They will do the same thing (spontaneously combust) because what they do is they generate their own heat when they’re packed that tight because that pile is heavy and it’s going to get heavier and heavier and packed to the bottom,” MacEachern said.

He said that heat built up in the South Mountain debris pile, which would be unlikely if onlyconstruction and demolition waste was present.

MacEachern said he had health and safety concerns relating to the heap’s burning contents. For example, he couldn’t have men and women fighting the fire breathing in fumes from burning asbestos.

By March 28, crews were in a “monitoring stage”: watching for hot spots.

The chief said site operator Derrick Shaffer  has been “very co-operative” helping in this effort.

With the direction of the fire department and Fire Marshall’s office, the large pile will have to be flattened out but this will take some time.

“Basically it will look like an arena surface almost – in a sense – of trash,” MacEachern said. “What I told  (the site operator) is that when I see that flattened out and I see dirt applied, that’s when I will consider the fire completely out.”

The site operators have essentially built a pond on top of the heap and are using portable pumps to recycle water onto any remaining hot spots. Hot material is also being doused in the makeshift pond.

MacEachern hopes for preventative measures to be taken so a similar situation doesn’t happen again at the C&D site.

“Let’s find a system that better separates it (the debris) before it ever gets to that pile,” he said.

Shaffer couldn’t be reached for comment prior to deadline.

Department of Environment investigating

Provincial Department of Environment spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said in a March 28 email inspectors are still gathering information in order to determine if any additional violations may have occurred.

No charges resulting from the fire have been laid against the operators to date.

The department issued an emergency order March 24 for the facility to cease operations so no new materials would be received at the site.

“Over the next few days, inspectors will assess the situation in order to determine if the order can be lifted. For now, the order remains in effect,” Fairbairn said.

She said a directive issued to the company March 10 also remains in effect. The operators have been ordered to remove all non-C&D materials from the disposal cell by May 25.

“At this time, inspectors are continuing to gather information in order to determine next steps and if any additional actions may be required as result of the fire,” Fairbairn said.

The McGee Lake watershed, the Town of Kentville’s backup water source, is about 2.5 km away from the C&D disposal facility. Fairbairn said the department has no reason to believe at this time that the watershed would be impacted by activities at the site.

-       With files from Jenn Hoegg, Wendy Elliott, John DeCoste and Ashley Thompson

By the numbers

-       Counting all that responded in some form of mutual aid or stand-in assistance, a total of 20 fire departments have been involved fighting the debris fire, including all 13 departments serving the geography of Kings County. MacEachern said others offered assistance.

-       Over the course of approximately five days, an estimated 75 volunteers with the Kentville Fire Department attended the scene per day to help fight the fire.

-       MacEachern said it took an estimated 1 million gallons of water each day over approximately five days to fight the fire.