Iqaluit’s dump fire shows signs of decline
GN's health department issues smoke advisory for June 5
More than two weeks after it first started, a large fire within Iqaluit’s garbage dump has subsided to a “smouldering stage,” and no longer poses a threat of spreading from a single, ever-shrinking pile, the city’s fire chief said.
“It has reduced in size, that’s for sure, and it does not pose a threat,” Luc Grandmaison, head of emergency services and Iqaluit’s fire chief, said June 4.
The blaze broke out at 1:30 p.m. on May 20, within the city landfill’s largest pile of garbage, measuring about 120 metres wide and 10 metres high.
Grandmaison first described it as a “deep-seated” fire that broke out from a hot spot some three metres beneath the surface of the pile.
Efforts to douse the blaze with 64,000 litres of water over a period of five hours failed.
Grandmaison likened the pile to a “volcano,” after noting the city did not have enough water to extinguish it. The fire department, with public works, decided to isolate the flaming heap and let it burn itself out.
City residents have since started calling the city’s ever-smoking mound the “dump-cano.”
A twitter account with that name appeared soon afterward and someone named Nunageek tweeted a photo of a child in an “I survived Dumpcano 2014” T-shirt.
The smouldering mass lost much of its mass over the past two weeks, according to Grandmaison, and smoke emitting from the mound has thinned since June 1.
“Basically the fire has burned 10 to 15 per cent of what was there [in the pile]. It’s shrinking from the inside as it burns,” he said, noting that the heap’s height has dropped by three metres since the fire started.
“Even the thickness of the smoke has declined a lot. You can see through the smoke now,” Grandmaison said.
Despite that, the Government of Nunavut’s health department issued an advisory June 4 that westerly winds were forecast “for most of the day in Iqaluit on June 5, which may bring dump fire smoke into the city.”
The smoke may have thinned from a heavy grey funnel to a pale trail, shifting with the winds — but residents’ concerns have not subsided.
Iqaluit MLAs have kept the issue on the agenda in Nunavut’s legislative assembly, with repeated questions about government action on health hazards from dump fire smoke and territorial policy on waste-management.
George Hickes, MLA for Iqaluit-Tasiluk, finally drew some answers in the assembly on June 4.
Questions on health hazards he put to Tom Sammurtok, minister of community and government services, drew blanks the day before, when the minister said simply that his department was working with the departments of environment and health “in determining what needs to be done.”
Hickes then directed his questions to health minister Monica Ell, June 4.
“I’d like to ask the minister of health today, whether her department has adopted any air-quality tests in Iqaluit,” he said.
Ell, the MLA for Iqaluit-Manirajak, answered that the department of environment, not health, monitors air quality.
She then assured that “the department of environment and health are currently working with Health Canada to arrange for air-monitoring equipment to be deployed in Iqaluit.”
“There are currently no firm timelines or information on what will be measured. And we have been advised that it is difficult, logistically, to set up this equipment,” Ell added.
Asked if the Nunavut government officials can detect harmful levels of toxic substances in the air, Ell replied that they could not.
What the government can, and has started to do, she said, “is collect information on the location of the smoke in the community, to learn more about the pattern of exposure.”
Ell pointed to public advisories by the chief medical officer of health, which have advised residents who might be affected by high levels of smoke “to reduce exposure” by staying indoors “as much as possible, with doors and windows closed and air exchangers turned off.”
The minister said that residents who experience more complicated symptoms should check in at the Qikiqtani General Hospital.
Hickes asked if more patients had gone to hospital to report such symptoms.
“There have been a few people that have had symptoms that may be related to the dump fire, since the fire started,” Ell replied. “None of these were seriously ill, and none were admitted.”
Ell added that “there will be times when smoke from the dump fire might come close (drift into) the community, and we have been observing this for the past two weeks.”
To help residents brace for it, Ell said the department of health would provide “advisories on the direction of the smoke” when winds threaten to blow it into Iqaluit, as they did June 4.
Meanwhile, Iqaluit’s fire chief said he could not predict when the fire would completely burn itself out.
“The plan is not to disturb the combustion process,” he said.
“If I do, it will increase the smoke. If I put water on it, it’s going to reduce the heat being produced and it’s going to slow down the burning process.”
Shortly after the fire, the city reduced residential garbage pick-ups to once a week.
Normal twice-weekly pick-ups will resume on Tuesday, June 10, at the earliest, according to the city’s director of public works, Keith Couture.
Iqaluit’s garbage is still going to the landfill site, Couture said, but to separate sections, isolated from the fire.
As of May 30, the city has been allowing access to the causeway, located within 300 metres of the dump.