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Garbage bin fires: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

A call to respond to a flaming trash bin may be as simple as it sounds, or it could spread and become a much larger and more difficult blaze to fight

The waste management industry is a large and multi-faceted entity with a presence everywhere. At all building types, there will be some form of refuse collection and disposal service system.

Particularly at non-residential buildings, firefighters may be called to respond to a garbage bin on fire. Garbage bin fires can be misleading and at times may expand into larger fires within the nearest structure. When a call comes in to respond to a garbage bin fire, we often think of it just being an isolated garbage bin unless further information is relayed from the call taker – most times, this information will be limited.

The types of garbage bins found at non-residential buildings will be building- and occupancy-dependent. These two factors, as well as the refuse being discarded, will dictate what type of system is used, the size of the dumpsters and their location in relation to the building.

A good assumption for these types of fires is that the blaze will spread into the adjacent building. In our video example, you will see where the fire began in the garbage bin but has spread to the building.

There are several past examples where fire spread was the result of a garbage bin fire, and the outcome was a devastating loss for both the fire department and the owner of the building.

Fire spread from these types of fires will be conducted through any type of opening that may exist and is available, such as door openings, bay door openings, windows, breaches in the wall, small or unsealed openings, and building vents. The weather also plays a major role in the fire spread; if there is a strong breeze blowing in the right direction toward the building, it can turn into a wind-driven fire.

Depending on the type of building and the time of day the fire occurs, gaining access to the building will be required and may involve forcible entry. As seen in the video, the type of building serviced by the dumpster is heavily fortified, requiring major forcible entry. This will slow down the interior teams from getting in to stop the fire spreading.

Quick action must be taken to reduce the spread of fire from any garbage dumpster fire to the building, which may include moving the dumpster, if it is on wheels and will roll, with the aid of roof hooks attached to the side arms used for the garbage truck.

The next time you are dispatched out for a garbage bin on fire, assume that the building will be involved as well, and if on arrival that is not the case, at least you will be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Training time

After watching this video with your company, you can:

  1. Preplan a commercial building in your response district to see what type of garbage bin system is present.
  2. Consider the available equipment and what other tactics may be used to quickly extinguish the fire in or around the bin.
  3. Research the trash fire that took place on March 14, 2001, at the Southwest Supermarket in Phoenix to see how fire can quickly spread from the exterior to the interior.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.