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Giant mulch pile bursts into flames on the Mattapan/Roslindale line

Flaming pile of mulch

American Legion Highway, not Kilauea. Photo by BFD.

Boston firefighters are currently at Landscape Express at 415 American Legion Highway, where its landmark mulch pile has caught fire. A ladder truck has been brought in to try to spray it down from the top; the company has been asked to send somebody in with a front-end loader because Mt. Mulchmore will need to be taken apart to get to the inner flames. Also, engine trucks have to line up to relay water from a hydrant; the pile itself has no nearby hydrants.

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Deep enough piles of mulch left sitting long enough can spontaneously catch fire. (PDF) Since this usually happens in the very middle of the pile, it's tough to put it out by spraying water on the outside. The landscaper should know all that.

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It seems to happen at least once a summer.

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Can we start calling it the South Fens?

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2020: An 80 foot tall flaming pile of mulch.

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My neighbor’s yard caught fire twice one summer. Fire trucks needed both times.

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stopped using mulch for landscaping a few years ago for exactly that reason. Although we had never had a problem in the past, we decided it was not a good idea to have something that could catch fire so easily right up against the foundation of the house.

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Big mulch piles catch fire because they trap the heat of decomposition. The thickness of mulch used for landscaping cools off too quickly for that.

A tossed cigarette will of course make it catch fire, but even then it has a strong tendency to smolder, and may take hours for all of it to burn. I've seen this a number of times. It's only an issue if it borders something *more* flammable, like dry grasses. (So don't toss cigarettes, I guess.)

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.... caught fire twice. No cigarettes involved. It was speculated that the reflection from a neighboring building heated the mulch enough that it began to smolder. Similar to brush fires.

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OK, I would not expect that.

The architect Rafael Viñoly has designed several curved buildings that inadvertently acted as parabolic solar concentrators, melting parts off of nearby cars, but I've never heard of a small building doing that.

I have seen some modern windows cast very bright reflections with odd shapes that suggest a curved surface (partially evacuated space between the panes for low heat transfer?) and maybe those could do it.

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Every so often you'll see a news story like this one, from England last year:

House fire started by sun reflecting off bedroom mirror

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Probably black mulch, which has more solar gain than the cedar-colored stuff.

https://www.universalhub.com/2014/repeated-fires-chelsea-market-basket-a...

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I was walking in front of the gas station next to the Pine Street in a couple of years ago and the mulch in the little planting area facing Berkeley Street was smoking and trying to get going. We did not see a cigarette but it was trying to burn and was smoky.

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of burning decomposing organic matter. Motion to name this the official mascot of 2020?

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This mulch pyramid should have never existed with no nearby hydrants. All it takes a cig butt being stupidly discarded still lit.

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The decomposition can generate enough heat for it to spontaneously combust.

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Mulch is the landscaping equivalent of the gender reveal party.

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Can it be seen from space?

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Makes the whole area smell funky through the night close your windows it’s a burning stinky pile.

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Once many years ago, I was in Ireland on vacation, catching up on family roots.

It was July or August, and had been unusually hot and dry for that area, especially for the previous month. I was out with my uncle, and we stopped at one country cemetery to make a visit to the family plot. As we walked up the hill from the car park, we came to a grave that had smoke rising from it!
My uncle concluded that peat had gotten mixed with clean fill at some point, and with the heat and dry weather had started to combust. Entirely reasonable, rational analysis - but the sight of it was still enough to give one pause.
Uncle found a communal bucket or watering can, filled it at a spigot, and a couple of trips was enough to douse the grave.

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Maybe that was enough to put it out, but peat has a way of continuing to smolder underneath. There's a peat bog in East Lexington (owned by Arlington, for some reason) called The Great Meadows, that catches fire from time to time. It burns for years, with the FD coming out periodically to hose down the places where the fire has erupted.

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Peat bogs are also known for their body-preserving capabilities. Bodies hundreds or thousands of years old are regularly retrieved from bogs in Denmark, the UK, and especially Ireland.

Putting all this together, I think it's clear that Rob's uncle, by his quick thinking, prevented, for a time, the Irish Zombie Apocalypse.

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Anaerobic bacteria is amazing stuff. In my landscaping days, I always remembered piles of mulch that steamed when you stuck a pitchfork into them--surprising heat. Mulch spread out, when its got more exposed surface area, is pretty benign. Large piles, however, have minds of their own.

On a side note, haystacks are also prone to spontaneous combustion for the same reason.

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Why don't they just make 2 smaller piles? There is room in that paddock.

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First the swan boat season gets cancelled, now this.

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The right combination of carbon, nitrogen, water in proper quantities equals heat potentially rising to fire. Basic fun science.

Adding water can actually increase the fire potential by providing increasing the bacterial activity.

With enough coffee grinds, water and last year's leaves can make for a 180 degree 5x5x3 compost pile. I measured it one year when I realized a roommate was adding massive amounts of coffee grinds.

It is science and still seems pretty darn magical.

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That configuration of C, N, and O (and S, and H, and...) has to include bacteria, as you mention later. It's more biology and physics (heat transfer) than chemistry.

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All biology is chemistry. All chemistry is physics. Then there are those math weirdos.

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XKCD cartoon that summarizes that argument.
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Was wondering if this comment section would bring the nerds out, and I’m not disappointed.

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Also, engine trucks have to line up to relay water from a hydrant; the pile itself has no nearby hydrants

A few questions...

What is the code-allowed maximum distance to a hydrant? What is the preferred maximum distance? How far can one fire truck set up a relay connection (since the article says trucks plural were needed)?

Boston hydrant map shows a hydrant on this property, maybe 250-300 feet from the pile. Is that map wrong? Was the hydrant out of service? Was the hydrant blocked?

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This business accepts yard waste from landscapers for a fee. In this streetview you can see a large pile of something with obvious brown paper leaf bags in the front. Isn't this pile really more of a recycling landfill than true bark mulch? Do they have a permit to run such a business?

https://goo.gl/maps/Ewv3f3VWeLvW3hkX7

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But in addition to them, keep in mind the streetview image is from July of 2019. Things may have changed over the past year as to the pile's contents.

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