Combustible mulch, cigarette butts a dangerous combination
Fire officials in the region spoke about the danger of mulch fires Thursday, in the wake of the possibility a blaze that destroyed an Ashburnham business earlier this week started in mulch.
Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office, said her understanding is that a cigarette in mulch is suspected as the cause of the Ashburnham fire Wednesday, but the investigation is ongoing and the person on that case was at a fatal fire in Marlboro Thursday.
The building was deemed a total loss, but no one was injured. Fire Chief Jack E. Parow said at the time he believed the fire started in the rear of the building near the drive-up speaker for Dunkin’ Donuts, possibly in the bark mulch back there.
Ms. Mieth said the state was unable to supply statistics on whether mulch fires were on the rise in the commonwealth.
On Sept. 1, 2012, a mulch safety regulation took effect in the state in response to a rash of fires in Massachusetts involving mulch-wood products. It prohibits the new application of mulch within 18 inches around combustible exteriors of buildings, such as wood or vinyl.
Residential buildings with six units or less are exempted from the regulation, but the state said all homeowners may want to adopt the safety practices. The regulation applies to all other buildings including commercial properties.
The law also calls for property owners to provide proper receptacles for smoking materials at entrances to buildings, placed at least 18 inches away from the building, and in designated smoking areas.
Auburn Fire Chief Stephen Coleman, Jr., who chairs Massachusetts Fire District 7 comprised of 25 cities and towns, said the provision of receptacles for smoking materials “isn’t always talked about.”
In April 2012, improperly discarded smoking materials ignited mulch outside an assisted living center in Braintree. The fire forced many older adults to evacuate in the early morning hours. Several people suffered smoke inhalation injuries, the state said.
In May 2008, a cigarette ignited a mulch fire at a Peabody apartment complex, resulting in $6.7 million in damage to the building. It displaced 750 people temporarily and 36 permanently, the state said.
Anecdotally, Worcester Deputy Fire Chief John F. Sullivan said mulch fires appear to be on the rise in the city.
He explained that in “the old days,” a smoker might put out a cigarette in grass, and it wasn’t a problem because grass is typically high in moisture.
But today, he said, business owners and homeowners are using mulch in and around the bases of buildings with more frequency because it’s easier than trying to mow grass up to the building or home, and edging it.
Rather than mow grass, say, three times a month, the mulch can be put it down in the spring and may only need to be spruced up once during the summer or as needed, he said.
Deputy Chief Sullivan said there weren’t any large-scale mulch fires that came to mind in recent years. They’re usually put out quickly, he suggested.
“Most of our mulch fires are right out in the open,” he said, where people driving or walking by see them quickly.
“For the most part, the ones that (resulted in) any structural damage are generally the residences that are wood clad on the outside,” he said. “It doesn’t take much for an old wooden porch on a three-decker to get going. Thankfully those are few and far between and we don’t generally have an issue.”
Chief Coleman of Auburn said his department responded this year to a couple of mulch fires already. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he surmised, it’s from a discarded cigarette. They are typically in the business district, where a motorist at a stop light or who’s left a parking lot will flick a cigarette in mulch.
“Rarely do we respond to residential homes for mulch,” he said.
Brush fires, he said, are a greater concern for the department this time of year.
At the Telegram & Gazette’s request, Chief Coleman said he sent an email to the 25 fire departments in his district, of which eight reported a combined 15 mulch fires since Jan. 1. He said he expects more as conditions continue to dry.
“It is still a little early for mulch fires to become a real problem because many homeowners and businesses have not even put it down yet for the season,” he said in an email. “We see it more in mid July and August when the mulch is dried out.”
The fire departments recommendation that business owners use stone or other non-combustible materials for landscaping, he said.