Hank Investigates: Mulch Fires - 7News Boston WHDH-TV

Hank Investigates: Mulch Fires

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This fire at a recycling center stopped traffic for miles, four Peabody firefighters injured and a million dollars in damage. This one left dozens of people homeless in Beverly. This one turned a Peabody condo into an inferno.  

These huge fires were all fueled by the same thing: mulch. The dried, chipped and pulverized wood is extremely flammable. But our investigation found local fire chiefs confused and divided about how to handle it! And perhaps as a result, dozens of mulch fires are causing damage every year in Massachusetts.

Stephen D. Coan, Massachusetts Fire Marshal

"That's a significant number to me."

Hank:

Isn't that dangerous?

Stephen D. Coan, Massachusetts Fire Marshal

"Yes, it is."   

Massachusetts fire regulations require places that store 2500 cubic feet of "combustible material", about as much as would fill a big living room, get a permit like this after an inspection by the local fire department. As for any hazardous material having a permit means firefighters know what dangers they're up against in an emergency. The rule specifically mentions tires, bales of cotton, empty packing cases, but not mulch though mulch is obviously "combustible."

Hank

"Do you think most fire chiefs are permitting mulch piles?"

Stephen D. Coan, Massachusetts Fire Marshal

"I honestly don't know."

Here in Stoneham the fire chief required this mulch supplier to register the material with the city

The chief told us:

"It's important to keep some parameters on the storage of possible combustible materials."

Here's a satellite picture of the pile of mulch at that Peabody recycling center that turned into this. 

And we found the owners of that property had not obtained a permit.

The fire chief told us:

"Under my local interpretation it didn't need a permit."

Here's a huge pile we found at a mulch supplier in Framingham, certainly much larger than a living room, but there's no permit on file.

Fire officials told us:

"Our interpretation of the regulations is, it's not required."

And there no permit for this pile at a landscaping company in Saugus, according to that chief:

"The law doesn't say mulch."

State fire officials say when this is the possible result something has to be done.

But it's not just these huge piles that mulch you spread in your garden and up against your house that can also be dangerous.

This man's home almost burned when the mulch in his garden caught fire.

Mark Kwatcher, Homeowner

"It could have been a disaster, a real disaster."

A mulch fire at this Belmont country club spread to a building last month. It caused $10,000 dollars in damage.

Larry Bienapfl, GM, Belmont Country Club

"Who knows, had we not been here who knows what the smoldering mulch could have done."

That fire at the Beverly apartment building started with garden mulch put against the side of the building.

So did the fire at the Peabody condo complex.

That's why state fire officials are discussing big changes!

We have learned they're pushing to make it clear large quantities of mulch need to be regulated--and possibly even require apartments and businesses keep mulch away from buildings.

Stephen D. Coan, Massachusetts Fire Marshal

"It's all with a single goal, and that's to protect people in this state from fire."

Now, the fire marshal has just issued this special mulch advisory:  

http://www.mass.gov/Eeops/docs/dfs/news/press/20100526_mulch_fires.pdf

(Copyright (c) 2010 Sunbeam Television Corp. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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