A shortage of water hampered firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the blaze at the New England landfill site on Monday, as hundreds of school children in the vicinity were sent home.
In what has been described as the “worst fire” the site has experienced thus far; firefighters say it is going to take about two to three weeks to extinguish.
A team of about 50 firefighters continued to work around the clock to extinguish the fire on Monday — but with limited resources and a stretched team following a long arduous process.
It is suspected that spontaneous combustion is the cause of the latest fire.
Msunduzi Municipal spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the municipality has deployed teams of firefighters from the municipality, uMgungundlovu District and from Working on Fire. “A meeting was held by the municipality’s senior management and Department of Environmental Affairs to come up with a sustainable plan for the site.”
Mafumbatha said the municipality had deployed a manager for the landfill site who will be dealing with all the operations and a plan for the sustainability of the area.
“We are in the process of hiring two bulldozers for the site,” she said.
She added that the traffic unit will be monitoring both the north and south bound N3 to ensure traffic safety in the thick smoke.
“There is a 24-hour private security on site, which is guarding the area.”
Exhausted firefighters who have been battling to contain and extinguish the blaze since Friday in unbearably hot temperatures said on Monday they were hampered by the lack of resources.
“I have been fighting fires for 19 years and this is totally devastating. This is going to take weeks to extinguish. We have been here three days and we have hardly made a dent. The lack of resources is crippling us,” said one firefighter, who asked not to be named.
“What is happening right now is that there is one municipal grader that is opening up the rubbish heap and we put water on it.
“The grader has to open it up because the fire is deep-seated. Just spraying water on top doesn’t help. It has to be opened up,” said another firefighter, who also did not want to be named.
He said the long, drawn-out process was exacerbated by the fact that there is only one grader working on the landfill site — and only one fire engine water tanker.
On Monday morning, firefighters had to wait over 45 minutes for the fire engine water tanker to be refilled.
“What this means is that a smaller area is opened up by the only grader on the site; and then our tanker needs to be refilled.
“The closest hydrant is at the entrance to New England Road. It’s a long, time-consuming, tedious and very tiring process,” said the firefighter.
He said most of the firefighters were using wet dust masks as a protective measure to try to minimise the health risks to them.
“The surface at the landfill site is not stable — it is like walking on sea-sand — so we cannot go in with heavy respirators and oxygen tanks as we run the risk of falling over and it is extremely tiring to carry those on our backs working on an unstable surface,” said the firefighter.
At least one firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation at the site.
All schools in the vicinity of the landfill site closed on Monday and notices were issued to parents to fetch their children due to the health risks posed by the billowing smoke which enveloped the city and its surrounds kilometres from the source. Ashburton, some 15 km from the dump, was covered in smoke on Monday morning.
When The Witness visited the dumpsite on Monday, many of the waste pickers were sitting on heaps of garbage watching as the firefighters extinguished the flames.
Clouds of billowing smoke and an acrid stench engulfed the site, leaving waste pickers and staffers choking.
A landfill staffer, who asked not to be named in fear of victimisation, told The Witness on Monday the fire was ignited by substances that are being dumped by factories at the site.
The staffer, along with several waste pickers, alleged the fire started at the site because of an oily substance that had been deposited on the dump and spread. “The substance is dumped in piles and looks like building rubble or sand. We don’t know what it is exactly, but it looks and feels like remains from candles and oil all mixed together.”
'I had trouble sleeping' says resident
Commenting on The Witness’ Facebook page, Bronwynne Winfield said: “I had trouble sleeping last [Sunday] night, tight chest and coughing fits. I wonder how many people have had to visit their doctors.”
Jackie Coetzer said the smoke had affected her three-year-old daughter.
“She has asthma, and this has triggered yet another unnecessary asthma attack. I would really like to know how the municipality is doing to fix this as I am seriously considering sending medical bills to the municipality.”
On Monday, Facebook community groups banded together to supply meals and water for the 50 firefighters who are on site.
Pick n Pay also delivered 100 bottles of water, 50 wors rolls and a box of apples to the firefighters.
Waste pickers lose week’s recyclables to the flames
“When it gets too hot, the substance ignites and starts a fire. This is not the first landfill fire started by this substance. I believe the municipality is aware of this toxic substance, but nothing is being done about it,” the municipal staffer said.
He added that the likelihood of fires erupting at the dump is boosted by the lack of sand at the site.
“The municipality is supposed to buy sand for the landfill site but that doesn’t happen,” said the staffer.
Waste picker Liston Tumbe said he had lost recyclables he had been collecting for a week as a result of the fire.
The 22-year-old Zimbabwean national said he was “heartbroken” as the money he made from recycling was his “bread and butter”.
“I have been here for a year and this is probably the fifth fire since I’ve been here. It’s a setback for waste pickers and the municipality must put measures in place to curb these fires,” he said.
Another waste picker, Buyiswa Mohlakoana, said this week she will not have anything to sell.
“I couldn’t save anything … it was either the recyclables or my life,” Mohlakoana said.
Late on Monday the spokesperson for the MEC of Environmental Affairs Nomusa Dube-Ncube said she would be visiting the dump site.
Environmental health campaigner at GroundWork Rico Euripidou said the emissions from the fire were of grave concern to residents and the environment.
“The municipality air monitoring devices are set to only pick up sulphur dioxide while the most important public health pollutant globally is particulant matter and this comes from traffic, fire, and other pollutants that are not being monitored,” said Euripidou.
Environmental monitoring specialist Dr Alistair Clulow said Pie-termaritzburg was in a precarious position as it was situated in a hollow. “At night, the pollution draws into the hollow with the cold air and sits there until the sun comes up ... The emission from this fire would take weeks to clear,” said Clulow.
He is part of a team being assembled by businesses and schools to monitor air quality as a result of the fires from the landfill site. Clulow said he hopes to present people with data on the city’s air on which to base a plan for clean air. — WR.