No end in sight for Iqaluit dump fire, officials say
Nunavut’s environmental protection unit can’t gauge human health hazard
Iqaluit’s landfill fire will continue to burn until it flames out on its own, the city announced May 23, three days after the blaze began.
The announcement confirmed the city is sticking to a recommendation by the city’s fire department and department of public works May 20, when they decided that fighting the fire would require too much water truck capacity.
The fire department has worked to confine the blaze to a specific pile that has been the source of four other fire alerts since last December, fire chief Luc Grandmaison said.
This time, the department found the fire to be rooted three metres beneath the pile’s surface, and too extensive to control with pumped water.
“Basically it’s going to burn itself out,” Grandmaison said in a brief announcement at city hall with territorial government and city officials.
“I cannot make a promise of how long it’s going to take,” the fire chief added. “There’s only one thing I know. The less we play with it, the faster it’s going to burn.”
No one, however, knows exactly what’s burning and whether it’s toxic.
“The way dump smoke behaves, it’s pretty difficult,” said Robert Eno, director of environmental protection for Nunavut.
“We can’t even take a guess as to what’s coming off the dump fire — it’s very difficult to quantify,” he said.
“There’s just a variety of materials in there, and they can produce a number of different components. As to whether they’re toxic to human health, that’s not a topic I can address.”
Lacking that information, Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health, Maureen Baikie, said health officials are most concerned about the effects of smoke, which carries “small particles,” hanging over the city.
“There are people that are more vulnerable than others to the health effects from those particles,” she said.
“That would include people with chronic lung disease and heart disease. And if the smoke is very heavy, then we would be concerned about young children and the elderly as well.”
Heavy smoke poses the greatest hazard to residents, Baikie said.
When winds carry smoke into the city, she recommended residents avoid strenuous activities outdoors and stay inside, with windows and air-exchangers turned off.
First compared to a “volcano,” due to hot spots deep within the site, Grandmaison said the fire has since burned through to the surface.
Large flames, visible on the fire’s second and third days, had subsided by May 23.
“So now it’s basically in a smouldering stage,” the fire chief said. Parts of the pile have since started to crumble, which he takes to be a good sign.
“As it burns from inside to the outside, it’s going to pack down.” Once the pile burns low enough, he added, “we will have to finish it.”
The department’s top priority is to isolate the burning garbage pile from an older pile of equal height next to it, which Grandmaison described as “the most hazardous part of the landfill.”
“We don’t know all of the products that have been placed in that area,” he said of the second pile. “Basically, the strategy is to sacrifice one landfill area to save another landfill area.”
City workers built a fire-break trench across the fill, to isolate the fire to the dump’s northern sections.
The city announced it would limit residential garbage pick-up to once a week, and that commercial service would not change.
Water and sewer trucked services are continuing, “but may be delayed periodically to supply water to the fire department,” deputy mayor Mary Wilman said at the announcement.
“Water consumption should be kept to a minimum, during this time,” Wilman read from a prepared statement.
“We are taking this landfill fire seriously,” Wilman continued. “The City of Iqaluit is working together with representatives from both the territorial and federal governments to ensure the safety of our citizens is a priority.”
“It’s also important to note that we are ensuring the safety of our staff and members of the community,” Wilman said.
Grandmaison said safety was a deciding factor in the decision to let the landfill burn itself out.
Iqaluit’s fire department, he said, is only equipped with two pumper trucks.
“Somebody’s property or life can be in danger while we’re at that dump fire,” he said.
Pumping salt water out of the bay instead of the municipality’s is also out of the question, he said, because it would corrode and destroy gaskets and other plumbing inside fire trucks.
“We cannot afford to lose those resources here,” he said of his department’s firefighting equipment.
Dousing the large fire would also put firefighters’ safety at risk.
“Is it worth risking to injure one of our firefighters, or their life, to save garbage?” he asked.
“There’s a lesson to be learned here, for all our stakeholders,” he said, noting the heads of the territorial departments of health, environment, and emergency services in attendance at the announcement, as well as the city’s department of public works.
“We need to plan better for the future,” Grandmaison said.
“This is not ‘let it burn and in two years from now, we’re going to let it burn again.’”