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Covington firefighters battle mulch fire at recycling center

The large pile of mulch at the recycling center on Turner Street erupted in flames Sunday morning and has been especially hard for Covington  firefighters to put out. At one point, they were putting 1,000 gallons of water per minute on the soggy mess. - Staff photo by Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith

The large pile of mulch at the recycling center on Turner Street erupted in flames Sunday morning and has been especially hard for Covington firefighters to put out. At one point, they were putting 1,000 gallons of water per minute on the soggy mess. - Staff photo by Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith

COVINGTON -- The Covington Fire Department has been battling a persistent, simmering blaze since Sunday at the recycling center on Turner Street, according to CFD Capt. Tony Smith.

"We were dispatched Sunday and found that the mulch at the center had flamed up and was producing heavy smoke in the area of the (Covington) Mill Village and the Housing Authority," Smith said. "The smoke was laying really low in that area and causing an issue. At one time we had three ladder trucks flowing roughly 1,000 gallons of water a minute in there."

Smith said the the mulch, comprised of leaves, tree limbs and yard trimmings, is known to spontaneously combust, but it usually can be put out by spreading it around a bit and limiting use of water.

But this time it proved to be stubborn. He said firefighters had gotten it down to where it was only smoldering, but then, when the Sunday evening storms came through the area, the high winds caused it to flare up again. CFD firefighters have stayed with it since that time.

"We usually see it three to five times a year flare up in little spots, but this is on a much larger scale. We haven't had a burn like this in several years," he said.

Smith said the high weekend temperatures may have contributed to the issue somewhat, but the bigger problem is the combustion.

"It generates its own heat," he said. "It sits there and smolders and builds up a head due to the compaction of it and it self-generates."

Monday afternoon he said crews are being rotated at the site due to health concerns.

"They're being exposed to some high temperatures and bad air quality," he said, adding that also by rotating the men the department is able to keep crews fresh in case of another emergency inside the city.

"We're actively still putting water on it with a combination of hose streams and the use of backhoes and front-end loaders to move it around and cool it," he said. "Probably later today (Monday) we should have it under control and have it where we can break off."

Covington City Manager Steve Horton said the city in the future will be looking at an alternative site to dispose of yard debris,as the pile becomes quite large depending on the time of year. Presently the city hauls the debris to the recycling center and an outside company comes in and grinds it up for mulch, which citizens can obtain for free.

But, he said to reduce the risk of a fire such as CFD firefighters are currently fighting, they may opt to begin taking it to an inert landfill.

Also, there are secondary problems when it becomes necessary to fight a fire such as this.

"When you have a fire like this and you run water on it, it creates a runoff problem. There's runoff getting in the creek," he said, adding that the city has notified the EPD of the situation and the EPD may come out and take samples of the water.

Currently, however, the recycling center is still open and customers are seeing minimal impact as the burn is located at the back of the recycling center.