RINGGOLD — A haze covered portions of Clarks Mill Road as smoke from fire at First Piedmont Landfill continued to drift away from the lot Thursday morning.
“This is really terrible,” said Belinda Royal, a resident with one tree line of separation between her home and the landfill. The smoke and smell bathed her home as she did chores in and around the house.
As unpleasant as the smoke smelled, however, landfill operator Tom Wade said a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality representative said the air wasn’t hazardous.
DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn confirmed the smoke was not hazardous, noting that management tested the air as the fire burned Wednesday night to ensure the safety of the workers and Thursday to determine there weren’t any health concerns.
“The facility was on top of it and responded per their plan,” she said.
The fire burned for at least 16 hours across an acre of the 120-acre industrial landfill before it was completely extinguished Thursday afternoon.
Six fire departments responded to the call at 7:20 p.m. Wednesday, fighting back the blaze until around midnight when the fire was deemed under control. From early morning to mid-afternoon, the private landfill staff worked with bulldozers to suffocate the remaining flames under dirt.
Ringgold Fire and Rescue took the lead, aided by crews from five other departments.
“We contained the fire to where it wouldn’t leave the property,” Ringgold Fire Chief Mike Neal said.
Wanda Hopkins, another resident near the landfill, said she originally saw smoke start Wednesday around 5:30 p.m., thinking it was a brush fire. About an hour later, however, the smoke was billowing through the area.
“It was black,” she said.
Hopkins added she then feared a home had caught fire and she ran with a neighbor to check. That’s when they heard emergency sirens wailing and saw the landfill.
Throughout the evening, she could hear pops and booms from the landfill.
Wade said the noises came from the fire overtaking different items in the landfill.
“There’s just no telling what it could be,” he said, after hearing them consistently as the staff worked to smother the flames.
Though both Neal and Wade were uncertain how the fire began, each pointed to two potential catalysts: lightning or heat-induced combustion.
Neal said a thunderstorm moved through about 6 to 8 miles away from the site, but that lightning was spotted in the area.
Wade said he’s seen fires start in landfills from something as small as the sun magnifying through a broken bottle onto a piece of paper.
Just the consistently high temperatures alone increased the likelihood for combustion, they said.
“As a landfill operator, it’s something you’ve got to deal with and be ready for,” he said.
No hazardous waste is kept in the landfill. Wade said materials like wooden pallets, plastics, metal bins and shredded tires burned as largely commercial and industrial waste is received at the site.
Despite the ongoing fire, the landfill operated normally throughout Thursday and no injuries were reported.
Regn said DEQ representatives are discussing how to monitor the soil temperature in the landfill to ensure nothing continues to smolder underneath the dirt Friday. The department will also continue to work with the landfill to investigate the cause.