Editor’s note: On behalf of the community, the West River Eagle would like to express our gratitude to all the fire fighters who responded to the fire on Friday and who never hesitate to stop what they’re doing to respond whenever a fire breaks out. We are in your debt.
A surface fire broke out at the Cheyenne River Sanitary Landfill the afternoon of Friday, August 12, around 1 p.m. Fire fighters were alerted by CRST dispatch on the fire line. The Eagle Butte Volunteer Fire Department (EBVFD) responded with eight personnel and six trucks. BIA Forestry and Wildland Fire Management responded with two staff and one truck.
Dark smoke rose into the air, indicating high temperatures capable of breaking down volatile chemicals.
The smoke possibly contained carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, and volatile organic compounds from household chemicals such as paints and paint thinner, pharmaceuticals, and refrigerants. Cancer-causing dioxins and furans can also be produced by this kind of fire.
The smoke blew away to the southeast of Eagle Butte as the blaze grew. Wind speeds were steady NNE at 13-17 mph with gusts up to 20 mph.
Flames shot as high as eight to ten feet, with occasional higher plumes due to small explosions as the fire ate its way through mounds of household trash. The explosions might have been caused by pockets of methane gas in the landfill or by exploding containers of household chemicals.
The fire burned a total area of roughly 4,000 acres. Reports from landfill staff indicate the fire was the result of human, not natural, causes.
Each year over 8,300 landfills catch on fire in the United States. The most common cause of landfill fires is some type of flame from a cigarette, barbeque coals or hot ashes; although spontaneous combustion due to heat generated by decomposition.
The blaze burned from before 1 p.m. until all active flames were extinguished by 5:30 p.m., although the trash continued to smolder for two days.
Fire fighters made six trips to town to fill water tankers at the EBVFD Fire Hall. Between 15,000-18,000 gallons of water were needed to douse the blaze.
It was both thrilling and terrifying to watch a landfill staff member operate a bulldozer on top of the landfill in the middle of active flames. He drove headlong into the flames while fire fighters directed hoses his path.
Witnesses report the operator sealed the cab and did not run the air conditioning in an effort not to breathe toxic fumes. The operator did not have a mask or an oxygen tank.
The bulldozer plowed over blazing trash, extinguishing flames by dispersing available fuel or by pushing burning material off the landfill into a large gully at the edge of the landfill mound, where blazing trash fell down the bare-earth slope and eventually burned out.
The use of heavy equipment on surface landfill fires is risky due to structural instability in the landfill.