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Why Massive Fires Have Engulfed Landfills of India and the Challenge to Douse These Blaze | Explained

Landfill fires engulf Indian cities: The major reason behind these massive fires at landfill sites is that they are not scientifically planned or designed

Updated: April 28, 2022 11:31 AM IST

By News Desk | Edited by Rajashree Seal

A local at the site, as smoke rises from a fire that broke out at Bhalswa landfill, in New Delhi, Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (PTI Photo)
The Ghazipur landfill has seen three such fires since March 28. (PTI Photo)

New Delhi: Firefighting operations are underway at two landfill sites across the nation at present — while Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill site continues to burn even after 36 hours, a thick blanket of smoke engulfed Chennai’s Perungudi dump yard from Wednesday. With plumes of thick smoke billowing out of the garbage sites, people residing nearby areas have complained of difficulty in breathing, itchy eyes, and poor visibility in the surrounding locality.

The Bhalswa landfill fire is the second major fire incident at a dump yard that has taken place in the past 30 days. Earlier last week, a fire broke out at the dumping yard at Ghazipur in east Delhi, less than a month after a blaze was reported from the same spot on March 28. The March 28 fire at the Ghazipur landfill site continued to blaze for over 48 hours polluting the atmosphere to its core.

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Bhalswa landfill fire

The massive fire that broke out at the Bhalswa landfill began on Tuesday (April 26) evening. Several videos showed the blaze churning out dense plumes of smoke and turning the sky hazy grey. On Thursday (April 28) morning, even after 36 hours, firefighting operations continued as some areas of the Bhalswa landfill site were still burning. Local residents said on Wednesday the thick smoke was choking them. The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. The landfill in Bhalswa in the city’s north is taller than a 17-storey building and covers an area bigger than 50 football fields.

Perungudi dump yard fire

The major fire broke out at Perungudi dump on Wednesday (April 27) afternoon. The fire was spotted by staff in the west of the dum around 12.30 p.m. They attempted to put out the fire but were unable to do so. At 2 p.m, they alerted the fire control room. The smoke spread to 5-km radius. As per reports, birds were seen fleeing the ecologically sensitive spot due to the toxic air.

Dadumajra landfill fire

On April 5, a fire also broke out at Chandigarh’s Dadumajra dumping ground. The massive fire created a suffocating cloud of smoke engulfing housing localities, causing breathing problems to residents and commuters crossing the section. As per reports, the smoke was so thick that vehicles and commuters were almost invisible and people were facing difficulty passing the road.

Ghazipur landfill fire

The major fire in East Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill broke out on March 28 and it became a challenge to be doused even after 50 hours, forcing the locals to stay indoors. While no casualty was reported in the blaze, a thick blanket of smoke engulfed the adjoining areas during that time. Approximately 2,000 tonnes of garbage is dumped at the site every day. Even last year, authorities reported four fire incidents at the Ghazipur landfill. And in 2017, a large part of it broke away, crashing onto a road and killing two people.

Why landfills are catching fire so frequently these days?

Recently, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has expressed serious concern over fire incidents at landfill sites in the national capital and other cities and said that these dumpsites are like “time bombs”. Landfills are the largest source of methane emissions and the presence of any ignitable material at the dumpsite can lead to massive fires amid high amounts of heat that remain undissipated. Methane is highly flammable and plays a large role in the ignition of landfill fires. Because of the methods normally adopted to deposit, compact, and cover waste in landfills, the decomposition of waste is largely anaerobic, which results in the production of large quantities of methane and carbon dioxide.

Apart from that, surface fires at dumpsites are also caused by equipment, people smoking on-site, and waste recyclers. “Causes of equipment-related fires include debris trapped under machines, heat from equipment (exhaust pipes) and welding. Informal recyclers also set fires to reclaim metals,” said a DownToEarth report.

Atin Biswas, a waste management expert and program director of the municipal solid waste sector at the Centre for Science and Environment, said, “There can be two causes for such fires. First, is the human factor; waste pickers who scavenge the waste may inadvertently start a fire. Second, and the more dominant reason, is methane generation from rotting food waste. Once the pressure of trapped methane gas crosses a threshold, a fire is ignited. That kind of fire is much harder to extinguish as normal fire tenders cannot reach the source of the fire.”

Why is it a Challenge to Douse Landfill Fires?

The major reason behind these massive fires at landfill sites is that they are not scientifically planned or designed. Atul Garg, the director, of the Delhi Fire Service, said, “Fires at landfills take time to be extinguished owing to several factors, including multiple ignition points, lack of constant water supply, and the danger involved in climbing steep garbage mounds.” He further explained that given the height of garbage, the water the firemen used seeped through slowly into the waste. He said the effort to make the firefighters climb up the mountains of garbage came with the risk of endangering their lives.

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