Landfill Fires

Landfill fires fall into one of two categories, surface and underground fires. Depending on the type of landfill and type of fire, landfill fires can pose unique challenges to the landfill/waste management industry and the fire service. This section addresses the particular challenges and the specific types of fires found in landfill sites and describes their characteristics and causes.

Surface Fires

Surface fires involve recently buried or uncompacted refuse, situated on or close to the landfill surface in the aerobic decomposition layer, generally 1 to 4 feet in depth. These fires can be intensified by landfill gas (methane), which may cause the fire to spread throughout the landfill. Surface fires generally burn at relatively low temperatures and are characterized by the emission of dense white smoke and the products of incomplete combustion. The smoke includes irritating agents, such as organic acids and other compounds. When surface fires burn materials such as tires or plastics, the temperature in the burning zone can be quite high. Higher temperature fires can cause the breakdown of volatile compounds, which emit dense black smoke. Surface fires are classified as either accidental or deliberate. Surface fires include the following:

  • Dumping of undetected smoldering materials into the landfill. Hot load fires are caused by the disposal of refuse that is still burning on arrival to the landfill (e.g., cleared brush).

  • Fires associated with landfill gas control or venting systems. Landfill gas control systems can themselves pose a fire hazard. Landfill gas (predominantly methane) can be

  • Fires caused by human error on the part of the landfill operators or users. Landfill operators and users can cause fires through careless smoking on the landfill, which can ignite waste or landfill gas. Also, as some hazardous substances can ignite when mixed, operators must take care to prevent the dumping of reactive materials into the landfill.

  • Fires caused by construction or maintenance work. Fires can occur while construction and maintenance takes place, including fires caused by sparks from vehicles used in the landfill (dump trucks, bulldozers, backhoes, etc.). A surface fire could also be ignited when drilling or while driving metal pipes through layers of buried waste if a hard object buried in the landfill is struck. Usage of welding or electrical equipment on site poses a fire hazard, due especially to the increased presence of methane gas.

  • Spontaneous combustion of materials in the landfill. The mixing of certain materials in a landfill can result in spontaneous combustion. Even in small quantities, some chemicals can ignite if exposed to one another. Also, some materials, such as oily rags, can spontaneously combust under certain conditions. Spontaneous combustion can also result from bacterial decomposition, which is discussed in more detail later in this section.

  • Deliberate fires, which are used by the landfill operator to reduce the volume of waste. Landfills contain refuse such as dry garden waste, grass, leaves, and branches. Sometimes these materials are deliberately set on fire to reduce refuse volumes, reduce operating costs, and increase a landfill’s operating life. This is an accepted practice under strictly controlled conditions. Uncontrolled, these deliberate fires could escalate into larger fires, cause explosions, or create hazardous products from the ash and residue burned.

  • Deliberate arson fires, which are set with malicious intent. Arson is a serious problem in the United States; therefore, it is not surprising that landfills are targets for malicious fires.

Underground Fires

Underground fires in landfills occur deep below the landfill surface and involve materials that are months or years old. These fires are generally more difficult to extinguish than surface fires. Underground fires also have the potential to create large voids in the landfill, which can cause cave-ins of the landfill surface. Further, they produce flammable and toxic gases (such as carbon monoxide) and can damage leachate containment liners and landfill gas collection systems.

The most common cause of underground landfill fires is an increase in the oxygen content of the landfill, which increases bacterial activity and raises temperatures (aerobic decomposition). These so-called “hot spots” can come into contact with pockets of methane gas and result in a fire. Of particular concern with these long-smoldering, underground fires is the fact they tend to smolder for weeks to months at a time. This can cause a build up of the byproducts of combustion in confined areas such as landfill site buildings or surrounding homes, which adds an additional health hazard.

Underground fires are often only detected by smoke emanating from some part of the landfill site or by the presence of carbon monoxide (CO) in landfill gas. In the event of an under- ground fire, CO may be present at toxic levels near the landfill’s surface. Generally an underground fire can be confirmed by:

  • Substantial settlement over a short period of time.

  • Smoke or smoldering odor emanating from the gas extraction system or landfill.

  • Elevated levels of CO in excess of 1,000 parts per million (ppm).

  • Combustion residue in extraction wells or headers.

  • Increase in gas temperature in the extraction system (above 140°F).

  • Temperatures in excess of 170°F.

To confirm a subsurface fire using CO, the results must be acquired through quantitative laboratory analysis (using portable monitors may result in artificially high concentrations). Levels of CO between 100 and 1,000 ppm are viewed as suspicious and require further air and temperature monitoring. Levels between 10 and 100 ppm may be an indication of a fire but active combustion is not present.

Extinguishing Landfill Fires

It is important to note that the different dynamics, characteristics, and regulations of landfills and the fires that occur in them suggest that tactics need to be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the materials buried, which materials have ignited, depth of the fire, and the fire’s ignition source.


Wind and inclement weather can increase the health hazards for firefighters operating on the fireground (e.g., in extremely hot or cold weather) and can directly affect fire spread.

Water Supply

The use of water to suppress landfill fires is controversial. The application of large volumes of water may actually exacerbate a fire by contributing to the process of aerobic decomposition. Further, adding water to the landfill creates additional leachate, which may overwhelm the leachate collection system in the landfill (if one exists). If the collection sys­ tem is overwhelmed, the additional leachate could contaminate ground and surface waters surrounding the landfill. Depending on the landfill’s location, there might not be an adequate supply of water available for fire suppression. Firefighters may have to establish a water supply using tankers and nearby static water sources (e.g., lakes, reservoirs).

Foam is an important consideration in landfill fire suppression. There are two primary types of firefighting foam. Class A foam is a special formulation of hydrocarbon surfactants. These surfactants reduce the surface tension of water, which provides for better water penetration and increased effectiveness. When aerated, Class A foam coats and insulates fuels, protecting them from ignition. Class B foam is used to extinguish fires involving flammable and combustible liquids. It is also used to suppress vapors from unignited spills of these liquids. As with all fires, there are advantages and disadvantages to using foam during fire suppression operations on landfills. The on-scene incident commander makes the decision to use foam based on the specific tactical situation at hand.

Multi-Agency Response

A major landfill fire will likely require the expertise of personnel from multiple agencies (e.g., the EPA, Department of Natural Resources). Some fire departments have Standard Operating Procedures in place that define all landfill fires as hazardous materials incidents, which require a specialized response. To ensure that all personnel (regardless of their agency affiliation) are operating according to the same plan, landfill fires require a strong Incident Command System.

Other Things to Consider

Personnel Safety

Fires, particularly those underground, can undermine the integrity of the landfill, which could cause a collapse under the weight of landfill employees, firefighters, or equipment. Such a collapse could necessitate a confined space, trench, or other type of technical rescue operation in addition to fire suppression. Given the potential adverse effects of exposure to burning landfill contents or the smoke produced by a landfill fire, personnel may have to use specialized personal protective equipment, which may be difficult to obtain.

Access To and Maneuverability of Heavy Equipment

To access waste below the landfill surface or move burning waste away from the landfill, it may be necessary to use heavy equipment such as bulldozers. Landfill operators may already own this equipment and have staff trained in its use. If not, this equipment will need to be located and brought to the fire- ground. If a fire affects the structural stability of a landfill, operating heavy equipment on the landfill surface would be dangerous. Finally, depending on the landfill’s location and design, operating heavy equipment on the site could be quite difficult.


As with any protracted fire suppression operation, Incident Commanders at landfill fires must address a variety of logistical concerns to facilitate operations. These include rotating personnel on a regular basis, compensating personnel for overtime spent operating at the landfill or filling in at fire stations in the jurisdiction, keeping firefighters on the landfill hydrated and fed, and, keeping records for future reimbursement. (Depending on the nature and location of the incident, local fire departments can seek reimbursement from the federal government or the landfill operator for costs associated with fire suppression.)

Landfill Contents

Fires occurring in landfills where hazardous wastes are buried can be particularly difficult. In past years, illegal dumping of hazardous and toxic materials in landfills and other dumping sites was relatively common. When a fire occurs and rescue workers have wrong or misleading information about the buried contents (e.g., illegal or unknown toxic or radioactive wastes), the fire suppression operation can be extremely dangerous.