Spontaneous Combustion Guidance

Emergency/Disaster Site - Spontaneous Combustion Guidance

When ground organic debris is put into piles, microorganisms can very quickly begin to decompose the organic materials.  The microorganisms generate heat and volatile gases as a result of the decomposition process.  Temperatures in these piles can easily rise to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  Spontaneous combustion can occur in these situations.

Spontaneous combustion is more likely to occur in larger piles of debris because of a greater possibility of volatile gases building up in the piles and being ignited by the high temperatures.  If windrows can be maintained 5 feet to 6 feet high and 8 feet to 10 feet wide, volatile gases have a better chance of escaping the piles; and the possibility of spontaneous combustion will be reduced.

Turning piles when temperatures reach 160 degrees can also reduce the potential for spontaneous combustion.   Pile turning provides an opportunity for gases to escape and for the contents of the pile to cool.  Adding moisture during turning will increase cooling.  Controlling the amount of nitrogen-bearing (green) wastes in piles will also help to reduce the risk of fire.  The less nitrogen in the piles the slower the decomposition process and consequently the less heat generated and gases released.

Large piles should be kept away from wooded areas and structures and shall be accessible to fire fighting equipment, if a fire were to occur.  Efforts should be made to avoid driving or operating heavy equipment on large piles because the compaction will increase the amount of heat build-up, which could increase the possibility of spontaneous combustion.