Officials: Huge Brush Piles At Landfill Pose Fire Hazard; Contractor Hired To Chip Material

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Storms

Brush and debris from the tornado continues to be piled up at the town landfill. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — Concerned that the huge piles of brush and debris at the landfill are a fire hazard, the town is hiring a contractor to break down the 40,000 cubic yards of material collected after the July 23 tornado.

Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr. told Town Administrator Christopher Clark last week that that “massive brush/debris pile [is] beginning to show signs of generating heat at the DPW (Department of Public Works)/landfill.”

Clarke expressed concern that the core of the pile could heat up, leading to internal combustion igniting the brush pile. If a fire were to start it would take many hours to extinguish and require thousands of gallons of water to contain, he said. After communicating with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which controls state forestry assets and fights forest fires, he determined the best approach was to chip brush and debris.

Officials estimate that as many as 3,000 trees were lost in the tornado that touched down in Harwich Center. Branches and debris also littered the town, and residents were given free access to the landfill to dispose of the material.

Deputy Fire Chief David LeBlanc said 90-degree days and humidity can fuel combustion. There is so much debris that a second large pile has been started.

“It’s something we need to move on sooner than later. It can’t wait until springtime,” LeBlanc said. “As it sits, it represents a fire hazard and we wanted to make sure everyone is aware of that.”

Given the letter from the fire chief, Clark put an action plan in motion. Assistant Town Administrator Joseph Powers, the town procurement officer, worked with DPW Director Lincoln Hooper to get quotes to have the pile chipped. The project called for grinding approximately 35,000 yards of brush at the Harwich disposal area. The contractor was required to supply the grinder, excavator and the front-end loader to windrow the chips on site.

Based on the bid prices and estimates provided by five companies, Powers recommended giving the job to local Robert B. Our Company, the low bidder at $120,000. Bids and estimates ranged from $162,400 down to the Our bid.

Clark said the Our Company is scheduled to start chipping at the landfill on Wednesday.

“Once it is chipped it will still be a factor,” the deputy chief said. “Chips can heat up faster. You can’t just leave it there. I don’t know what the long-term plan is or if there is enough storage for it.”

Hooper said the DPW has cleared a swath of trees at the landfill to make room for the chipping process and the resulting the windrows, which he said will be strips of chips piled 15 to 18 feet high and 24 feet wide and at lengths suitable for storage. It will require multiple windrows, he said.

There used to be industries that would buy wood chips to fuel plants, but that market no longer exists because of conversion to cheaper gas operations, Hooper said. The plan is to retain the windrows at the landfill which will require turning them over a couple of times a year to prevent heat buildup; eventually the chips will get mixed with compost and converted to loam.

Hooper acknowledged there is an over abundance of loam in landfills on the Cape. Landscapers take unscreened loam for their use with the understanding that one-quarter of the material gets screened and returned to the landfill and made available to residents, he said.

Hooper said the 40,000 cubic yards of brush and debris will be reduced to about 10,000 yards when shredded. The result will not be true wood chip material, but a coarser product, more stringy, and not the type of material people put in their yards, he said.

Hooper estimated it could take the Our Company a month to do the work, but he added the contractor has a new machine so it may be done more quickly.