3 keys to winning a dumpster fire attack

Seemingly small and routine, the dumpster fire is as dangerous as a structure fire

In the fire service we spend a great deal of time and effort in training and discussing structural fires, and rightfully so. There is a lot that can wrong at these incidents and we need to rigorously prepare for battling structural fires of all types. 

But, sometimes left out in our regular training is the common fires that are perceived to pose less risk and are seemingly simple to handle. These are dumpster or trash fires.

The past few years we have read about serious injuries to firefighters and even death while operating at fires in trash receptacles or dumpsters. Although these fires are normally "routine" and without incident, we cannot let our guard down when responding to and operating at these calls. 

Whether the fire is in a residential trash receptacle or a large commercial dumpster, firefighters need to have a constant approach to these incidents.
Whether the fire is in a residential trash receptacle or a large commercial dumpster, firefighters need to have a constant approach to these incidents. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

We need to occasionally brush up on our tactics and share information with our crews about fighting dumpster fires.

Whether the fire is in a residential trash receptacle or a large commercial dumpster, we need to have a constant approach to these incidents. I like to tell firefighters that each of these fires needs to be considered a hazardous materials fire

They are not hazmat fires in the sense that we pull off the Level A suits and call in the team, but that we use a cautious approach that recognizes the fact that we never know what is in those containers. Operating with that frame of mind will help you slow down and maybe survey the situation just a little more conservatively.

Here are some keys and considerations for operating at dumpster fires.


By knowing the occupancy that the dumpster is serving may assist in knowing what the contents might be. An auto parts store could have brake cleaner, parts cleaners and other flammables. Use what you know and can identify to prepare accordingly.

An abandoned house could have anything in it including remodeling materials, old carpets, synthetic flooring and even asbestos.

Industrial locations can have just about anything and everything, including combustible metals, materials that are reactive to water or both. Use extreme caution at industrial sites and try to secure the site's hazardous materials data book.

On commercial buildings, look for the NFPA hazard diamond to identify any significant hazards kept on the property. It is very likely they are also in the dumpster.

Personal protective equipment

SCBA should be more than weight on your back. Wear your air! It's free and can save your life. I can't tell you how incredibly important it is to wear your pack and mask. 

Flash fires and for small explosions from aerosol cans in these containers is common. Don't forgo wearing your hood and buttoning up your collar. Again, wear your air.

Use structural firefighting gloves, not extrication or work gloves. Your work gloves on any fire are structural firefighting gloves. Protect your hands.

As you can see, you need to be buttoned up for dumpster fires just like you would for a structural fire. Don’t take shortcuts!

Fire attack

Like any fire or incident, try to attack from the up-wind side. This is not always possible, but it helps with visibility and staying out of the "junk."

I recommend at least a 1¾-inch hand line for suppression. It really depends on the size of the container. But, I can flow more water and fill the container much faster with the larger line as opposed to a 1-inch booster line. In the end, follow your department guidelines. 

If the dumpster is threatening an exposure, then the booster is not an option. 

When approaching and deciding what type of stream depends on personal preference, department guideline and location of the container. If the container is not threatening anything else, a straight stream can be directed into the container to get penetration.

If you have a lot of smoke with a container that is not threatening an exposure a narrow fog can be used to push the smoke away from you as you approach the container and then put to a straight stream or very narrow fog pattern once at the container.

If the container is threatening an exposure, a straight stream is recommended to avoid moving smoke and heat into the exposure. In some instances, foam can be used to increase extinguishment in stubborn dumpster fires.

Not to be taken lightly

Don't take dumpster and container fires lightly. They can be just as dangerous as a structural fire in certain circumstances. The problem is that we have no way of knowing what or when those circumstances are. So, approach each one as if they are dangerous. 

Don't take shortcuts with PPE. The only reason not to be fully protected is pure laziness. Ensure that you and your crew are geared up and ready for battle. That means being on air and wearing proper gloves and attire.

Finally, discuss these fires and identify occupancies that may pose an especially dangerous situation should one of their containers have a fire. This can help determine what type of tactics will be deployed before the fire happens.

These are not all of the options and considerations that can be discussed with trash and dumpster fires, but merely the high points. Be sure to follow your department's operational guidelines and keep training hard.

This article, originally published in 2014, has been updated

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