September 1, 2008

Stubborn Blaze at Mulch Facility Sends Smoke High

By Andie Hannon

POLAND - More than 100 firefighters from about 20 communities fought far into Sunday night to contain more than 20 acres of blazing mulch at the Jolly Gardener mulch plant on Route 122 in Poland.

And officials anticipate that it will take days to fully extinguish the flames and erase the plume of smoke hovering over southern Androscoggin County. The smoke could be seen for miles around after the fire broke out Sunday afternoon.

"We've had pretty steady, heavy breezes all day," said Deputy Chief Mike Minkowsky of the Auburn Fire Department. "So what happened is that it started on one side of the facility and then it blew itself all over the place."

Auburn was of three area fire departments organizing the effort to knock down and contain the blaze while battling wind gusts all afternoon. Fire departments from Poland and Mechanic Falls also assisted in the unified command. Poland was first on the scene just minutes after the 1:40 p.m. call.

Minkowsky said the blaze soon spread to 20 acres by wind-borne embers at the mulch plant owned by Oldcastle, Inc. No one from the Atlanta-based company was available for comment on the blaze as of late Sunday afternoon. The plant was not in operation Sunday afternoon, and the blaze was called in by a security guard.

"This could be a long night," said Capt. Rick Riley, of the North Yarmouth Fire Department, as he assisted a Gray firefighter manning a hose atop a mulch pile on the outer perimeter of the yard. "This mulch and all this could burn for days. I bet we'll be here overnight and well into morning."

Minkowsky attributed the quickly spreading fire to dry conditions and wind. He said that by the time crews arrived on the scene the blaze had already spread to three buildings on site, as well as several acres of mulch piles. The biggest challenge, according to Minkowsky, was that the fire was several inches inside mulch piles in many areas due to the way it spread via tiny embers.

The blaze produced a huge cloud of smoke that could be seen in surrounding communities, but Minkowsky said officials did not consider the smoke to be especially hazardous to residents living in the area because the mulch was not treated with hazardous chemicals. As of late Sunday afternoon, Minkowsky said that crews were preparing to use fire foam because it penetrates into burning materials such as wood, bark and mulch faster than water.

Minkowsky said several firefighters were treated for heat and smoke inhalation throughout the day.

As firefighters fought to control the fire, a crowd of people gathered at the gates leading into the plant and across Route 122. Among them were several employees of Jolly Gardener.

"It's spread to the point where we've lost some buildings," said Brad Elliott, a nine-year employee of the plant. "I'm just hoping nobody gets hurt. It's not looking pretty."

Originally published by Staff Writer.

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