Smoldering waste pile smokes on

2013-05-25T06:00:00Z Smoldering waste pile smokes onAndrea J. Cook Journal staff Rapid City Journal
May 25, 2013 6:00 am  • 

Unless the weather cooperates, smoke from two smoldering compost piles at the Rapid City Landfill could continue to plague residents living in and around the city for a few more days.

Over the past week, strong winds have hampered efforts to douse the smoking mass of yard waste that ignited on May 16.

"There is a misconception that this is garbage burning," said Public Works Director Terry Wolterstorff, during a tour of the area. "This is definitely not garbage."

The Rapid City Fire Department has fielded about a dozen calls about the smoke. The mayor's office has also received calls, Wolterstorff said.

The Environmental Protection Agency in Denver received an anonymous call about the fire, according to Solid Waste Superintendent Karl Merbach. Those concerns were forwarded to the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, he said.

But, there's really nothing that can be done other than to continue breaking the pile apart to cool the hot spots and drown hot embers, Merbach said.

On Friday, a front-end loader took 6-yard bites out of a towering pile of smoking compost, while a water truck stood by shooting bursts of water on the scattered compost. The hose was frequently turned on the giant pile when smoke billowed from newly exposed surfaces and the north winds fanned new pockets of flames.

The cause of the fire is unknown, but it is not uncommon for small spontaneous fires to break out in composting materials, according to Lt. Brent Long of the Rapid City Fire Department.

"We come out here a few times a year," Long said Friday when a fire truck arrived to soak some of the burning embers with a compressed air foaming agent that helps make "water wetter," he said.

Landfill employees successfully separated the finely ground yard waste from a pile of course yard waste consisting of tree branches, trees, shrubs and grasses were the fire started. Stretching from north to south, the piles are each approximately 150 yards long.

Plumes of smoke rose from each pile.

The finely ground compost is getting the most attention, because it is producing most of the unpleasant smoke.

Once the loader digs a bucket of compost from the big pile, it is scattered and hosed down to extinguish any embers. When a pile is fire-free, it's loaded into a dump truck to be hauled to a nearby site to join rows of compost waiting for a final sifting. The landfill sells the sifted compost.

Firefighters helped monitor the massive piles around the clock, until Tuesday. Landfill and city workers have continued to work the piles, with help from other city crews. The piles are monitored around the clock.

Work was progressing well at dousing hot spots and stirring the piles until the wind started to pick up on Thursday. Winds gusting up to 39 mph fed the smoldering embers.

Water will only penetrate so far into the smoldering mass, so just pouring water on the piles will only cool the surface fires, Long said.

Contact Andrea J. Cook at 394-8423 or

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. Old Guy
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    Old Guy - May 26, 2013 7:47 pm
    The only way to put out these type fires is to pull the piles apart, spread out the material and wet it while stirring it or let them burn out. Rain really doesn't help because it doesn't penetrate the piles. Water applied without breaking the piles down just runs off because of the compaction of the piles and the natural surface tension of the water (ask a science teacher to show you how to float a straight pin in a bowl of water). I bet some of you complaining would also be complaining about the huge amount of money the city would have to spend on labor and equipment to overhaul these piles not to mention costs for operating the equipment and the water it would take to extinguish the fire. I dealt with several of these type fires during my 40+ years in the fire service (none with RCFD). The City and RCFD is dealing with it the same way many other cities have because it is the safest and most cost effective way to deal with it
  2. South Dakotan2
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    South Dakotan2 - May 26, 2013 6:35 am
    On May 17, one day after the fire started, the City made this statement "The Rapid City Solid Waste Division and Rapid City Fire Department say they have decided to let a fire at the landfill burn itself out." About two days later we had THREE days of rain in Rapid City (most during the weekend if I recall correctly). My point is that the fire should have been attacked aggressively during that time when conditions were most advantageous. In other words, true leaders are PROACTIVE, hard working, and make quick adjustments as the situation presents itself. Unfortunately, over the years I have observed NONE of these positive character traits exist in the leadership of the City of Rapid City department heads.
    It is always a REACTIVE response which is both incompetent and unacceptable.
  3. purpletier53774
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    purpletier53774 - May 25, 2013 7:10 pm
    Exactly! I remember an article (when the fire first broke out) saying the RCFD could do nothing but was there watching it burn (to make sure it didn't get worse I guess ) but that we had to just put up with the smoke (because the smoke wasn't that bad). The article also said that it (fire) should be out by Thursday of that week by the latest (what happened?). Maybe it would've been if it was done correctly. I wonder how big cities deal with things like this because they have yard waste too (a lot more of it ).
  4. ProChoice
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    ProChoice - May 25, 2013 12:43 pm
    Do you really think that the city just decided "Oh we wont do anything about it." "We will just let smoke fill the town."

    Come on South Dakotan2...Why dont you go out there and fix the problem then? Seeing as your so wise and all knowing.
  5. South Dakotan2
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    South Dakotan2 - May 25, 2013 7:04 am
    Excuses. Excuses. The article conveniently left out the fact we had three days of RAIN in Rapid recently and the City did NOTHING to extinguish the fire at that time (earlier articles mentioned the City was "letting it burn out"). Incompetence and laziness on full disply.
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