Hired hands dig into Nunavut’s biggest dump fire
Industrial firefighting crews spray and scrape away at Iqaluit’s dumpcano
Plans to extinguish Iqaluit’s summer-long dump fire finally came together Sunday, Aug. 31, when a team of industrial firefighters began their assault on the 10-metre-high smoking mass of garbage.
“It’s more than a fire,” site manager Mike Noblett, of Global Forensics Inc., said of the three-month-old smouldering pile. “It’s actually, in all reality, a hazardous materials incident, that has a fire involved.
“We’ve got to make sure the bad stuff that’s in there, stays in there,” he said, noting that the pile’s contents are largely unknown.
The city recently called on the services of Alberta-based Global Forensics Inc. to join another Alberta-based contractor, Hellfire Suppression Services, to put out a fire that is beyond the city’s means to extinguish.
When the fire broke out May 20, Iqaluit’s emergency services and public works departments quickly concluded that the city did not have the resources – in terms of staff, equipment and water pumping capability – to put it out.
Iqaluit fire chief Luc Grandmaison described the fire as “deep-seated,” traced to an area several metres within the pile, and compared the smoking mound to a volcano.
The chief noted that flames had broken out in the same general area of the garbage pile four times since Dec. 12, 2013. On that date, the fire department isolated the affected area by digging trenches around it, forming a pile measuring about 120 by 60 metres, and 10 metres in height.
The fourth fire alert to the mound proved too much for the fire department to handle. The mass of garbage and waste material has since burned and smouldered throughout.
“We have enough men and equipment on here that would keep the town’s fire department completely involved, 16 hours a day,” Noblett said at the site Aug. 31, as day one of the effort came to a close. “That means you would have no fire protection and no ambulance service. That might not be what you want.
“You can’t just shut down your entire fire department for a month, right?”
The city’s fire department estimated it would cost about $3.3 million to douse the fire by the target date of Sept. 30.
The fire-extinguishment plan calls for firefighters to reduce the height of the pile to five metres by removing sections, bit by bit, to quenching ponds, while continuously dousing the smoking heap with massive amounts of water.
Noblett and fellow site manager Joe Towers, also with Global Forensics, said the first day’s work on Aug. 31 – starting at 1:30 p.m. and ending by 7:00 p.m. – went “extremely well.”
By day’s end fire suppression crews had scooped away and doused the northern-most tip of the pile, leaving a bit more than six metres long.
The site managers noted that the firefighting team — including the firefighting and hazardous waste contractors from outside Nunavut, with two members of the city’s fire department — changed certain elements of the city’s dump-dousing plan to save time and limit environmental hazards.
Global Forensics established a “decontamination zone” around the area of firefighting to keep hazardous materials from leaving the site.
“You can’t have anybody tracking it home with them,” Noblett said.
“We’ve cut back on certain stages, because they weren’t needed,” added Towers. “I think overall, in a day, we’ve saved four to six hours, just taking out one process.
“But I think the biggest thing was the water supply.”
Instead of pumping sea water from Frobisher Bay onto the pile, crews have tapped into Carney Creek, known by many in Iqaluit as “airport creek,” to spray the mound with some 400 gallons a minute, Towers told Nunatsiaq News.
“The initial plan, before we got here was to pump out of the bay,” Towers said, but extreme tides don’t allow crews to pump water continuously.
“Then we also had the issue, when you use salt water – how’s it going to affect the machinery?” he said. “The salt water will react with copper – it’ll cause rusting.”
An added concern was the effect of salt water on the unknown hazardous materials within the pile.
“If you apply salt water, are we going to get a reaction because of the sodium and the chloride. Is it going to react with something to cause another problem?”
Towers’ firm earned approval “from all government agencies” to pump water from Carney Creek, he said. “We’ve got constant flow, and it’s not tide-dependent.”
Crews are pumping water from the creek to two reservoirs, he said. The stream’s fresh water is passing through a network of hoses and onto the pile to cool it and keep soot from rising into the air.
Red Deer, Alberta-based Global Forensics Inc. identifies itself online as a forensics and technical services provider. As site managers for the Iqaluit’s dump extinguishment plan, the firm is managing all logistics and safety practices related to the operation.
The firm is also monitoring the site and surrounding areas of air and water quality “daily,” and watching for signs of hazardous fallout, Noblett said.
“This isn’t a haphazard event,” he said. “We have to meet standards, or they can shut us down as well.”