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Tenn. mulch fire poisons air, kills off local fish

Storm debris at site helping to fuel blaze, county health officials issue ‘code red’ air quality alert

By Gerald Witt
Knoxville News-Sentinel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knoxville Fire Department has answered an average of one fire call per month for a decade at the site of an ongoing mulch fire within view of downtown.

Those 158 calls at city-contracted Shamrock Organic Products, 2501 Ailor Ave., usually have been for “small mulch fires,” said Sonny Partin, deputy fire marshal for the city. On Sunday, the whopper hit.

Deep-buried fire smoldered throughout Monday, spreading blue and white smoke across Knoxville.

The Knox County Health Department declared a “code red” alert, meaning the air swirling around the nine-acre site near Middlebrook Pike was unfit for anyone to breathe. Fire crews dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of water on the burning pile, which led to a fish kill in nearby Third Creek.

McGee Tyson Airport lent a firetruck to spray foam on the blaze. Knox County Schools kept students inside at nearby schools. And the Red Cross set up a shelter for neighbors of the blaze who had been smoked out of their homes.

The Fire Department asked the National Guard for a helicopter and a bucket to dump water on the blaze. But it was too breezy Monday for a helicopter. Wind gusts up to 32 mph instead only fueled the flames and blew smoke east and north from Shamrock.

Rain, which could fall today, would help. But the blaze likely will burn for days, officials said. “Because it’s a fire in the city, they’re in violation of the burning act,” said Dr. Martha Buchanan, Health Department director. “We can also fine them for the nuisance, and that’s going to be based on how long it goes on.”

Alan Lawson, director of the Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency, is helping coordinate efforts among the city, county and any state groups responding to the fire. The Knoxville Fire Department is lead agency in the fight. “It has an environment aspect to it that’s certainly not run of the mill,” Lawson said.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers alerted KFD officials Monday afternoon about the fish kill, according to KFD Capt. D.J. Corcoran. Dozens of fish floated belly-up near the mouth of Third Creek, a popular place for runners and bikers. Knoxville fire officials said a berm that was “compromised” during firefighting operations allowed runoff to flow into the creek. The berm was being rebuilt to divert water from the fire site back onto Shamrock’s property. Crews have been spraying about 90,000 gallons of water an hour on the fire.

County authorities first issued a “code orange” alert for the surrounding air, meaning it was unhealthy for sensitive groups. But after an air monitoring station at Davanna Street showed the air quality had worsened, authorities bumped the alert to “red,” according to Renee Ranby, public health community relations director.

“It’s a really big wood fire,” Buchanan added. “It does put out smoke that doesn’t smell good.” Air quality monitors were being placed throughout the city. Hospitals are being monitored for an uptick in cases related to the smoldering mulch.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and work with all of our partners,” Buchanan said. “The Knoxville Fire Department and TEMA (Tennessee Emergency Management Association) and TDEC (Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation) and the mayor’s offices - all of them are intimately involved.”

The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at 6921 Middlebrook Pike for those who couldn’t close their homes to the smoke.

As for the fire site itself, officials said the property recently had passed two Fire Department inspections that occurred in March.

The piles of mulch, roughly 30 feet high, are within the height limits that the city allows - 60 feet.

Storms from last year resulted in piles of yard debris on the property, about 20,000 more tons than in a usual year, according to David Brace, director of public service for the city. Shamrock contracts with the city to take the yard waste.

“We had an incredible year last year,” he said. “Storm volume out the wazoo.”

Shamrock, owned by Randy Greaves, is insured under the city’s contract requirement.

“It’s not a good scene right now,” Brace said. “He’s provided 18 years of service and we kept a lot of waste out of landfills.”

Staff writers Jim Balloch, Hayes Hickman and Don Jacobs contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 Knoxville News-Sentinel