Firefighters in county battle wave of blazes in mulch piles

Officials issue warning about safety measures

May 04, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Mulch, a popular landscaping beautifier for shrubs and gardens, can become a fire hazard in dry and breezy conditions unless common-sense precautions are taken, fire officials say.

Since Thursday, firefighters in Carroll County have responded to more than a half-dozen mulch fires, including four calls to a Manchester sawmill, mulch and sawdust business.

"Large mulch piles, those 10 to 15 feet high or higher, need to be turned over at least every two weeks," said Chief Doug Wheeler of the Manchester Fire Engine and Hook & Ladder Company No. 1.

Heat builds within a large mulch pile to the point where, often without warning, it ignites, Wheeler said.

At J. C. Wilhelm Inc. in the 3700 block of Maple Grove Road, southeast of Manchester, two piles estimated at 300 feet long and 100 feet high burst into flames Thursday.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control in about 2 1/2 hours and spent several more hours mopping up, using a front-end loader to turn the mulch as they doused it.

Getting to all of the hot spots can be difficult, and firefighters had to return to Maple Grove Road three times in the next two days to douse flames.

The property owners are working on breaking down the piles to prevent additional fires, Wheeler said yesterday.

Smaller mulch fires broke out over the weekend in Westminster, Sykesville and Eldersburg, probably caused by smokers carelessly discarding cigarette butts, he said.

When mulch is used around shrubs, trees and in gardens to hold in moisture, it is often 3 to 4 inches deep, not enough to allow heat to build up within the mulch, Wheeler said.

"Mulch in those situations dries out quickly," he said.

In most instances, fires are caused when a discarded cigarette lands in the mulch or is blown there by the wind, Wheeler said.

That was the case early Sunday in Eldersburg, where state fire marshals were called to investigate a fire off the 7200 block of Pommel Drive that destroyed playground equipment used by the Hilltop and Clipper Hill communities.

Fire marshals said the fire began in mulch near the wooden playground equipment. They ruled the cause accidental, noting that carelessly discarded smoking materials ignited the mulch.

Once hot weather arrives, it is more likely that property owners will be watering their mulched shrubs and gardens, reducing the chance of accidental fires, Wheeler said.

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