How a mulch fire can spontaneously ignite


HORSEHEADS, N.Y. (WETM) – On the afternoon of Labor Day smoke complaints started being reported to the 18 Newsroom, not long after those reports, we found out that a mulch fire had ignited in Horseheads.

74,000 gallons of water later, the Horseheads Fire Department put out the blaze but it created more questions as to how this could have happened.

For starters, the entire area is currently considered “abnormally dry” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, some places considered to be in a “moderate drought.” Dry conditions on top of the high wind that Labor Day saw created a perfect environment for an accident such as this to happen.

When mulch and brush are packed into large piles like this, they retain their heat very well and as the organic matter decomposes, it creates more heat with nowhere for it to go. The dry conditions and the high wind allowed for the mulch to spontaneously ignite. Thankfully, it was contained, but not after a significant amount of water was used. The Horseheads Fire Department had to dig into the 60-foot high pile to spread out the mulch and douse it in the water at different places to make sure the fire was properly suppressed.

A similar fire that poses a threat in the summer is the hay bale fire. Usually, farmers know better but sometimes time just doesn’t play along. When wet hay is baled, that wet hay breaks down chemically on the inside and that chemical breakdown creates a lot of heat. That heat can then ignite the hay bale which, if store inside a barn, can cause a large and dangerous structure fire. Coming from a very rural area in Kentucky, I can count many times I would be driving along the countryside and just see a hay bale in a field on fire.

If you have mulch on your property, make sure it is stored properly and that nothing flammable is near it. If you smoke, don’t throw your cigarette butts into the mulch (or anywhere for that matter, that’s littering). As we get into Fall, and hopefully see some relief to the dry weather, the threat of mulch fires should die down.

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