The science behind landfill dump fires like the one in East Cleveland

Arco Recycling, East Cleveland (Source: WOIO)
Arco Recycling, East Cleveland (Source: WOIO)

EAST CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Over the weekend the East Cleveland Fire Department has been battling a fire at the Arco Recycling Center location on Noble Road, but how do these fires start?

There are an average of 8,300 landfill fires every year in the U.S. and they are mostly a matter of science, according to Waste Management World.

The site ScienceDirect explains the process of decomposition, which is when the materials in a dump -- in this case building materials -- start to break down over time.

As the garbage breaks down it gives off gases known as landfill gas (LFG).

"The ignition and propagation of subsurface landfill fires are a function of factors which include waste composition and moisture content, available oxygen, and ambient pressure in the area of combustion," according to ScienceDirect.

The breaking down of materials produces heat and that buildup of heat can create fire if it gets too high.

"Normally you'd expect the process of decomposition to heat the interior of a landfill to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit," according to an article on FiveThirtyEight.

Sometimes these fires aren't fires at all. They are a smoldering collection of chemicals that can cause what's called subterranean smoldering combustion.

"We are talking about a completely different beast," according to Guillermo Rein, an engineering professor at Imperial College London who studies subterranean smoldering fires said in the FiveThirtyEight Article. "The heat-transfer processes and the chemistry that takes places in smoldering is significantly different. We know very little about smoldering. We know even less about the deep ones."

In East Cleveland they have yet to find an exact cause of the fire and after a second flair-up it's becoming more difficult.

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