Mulch fires can do much damage


While waiting for your order in the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant you toss your cigarette butt out the window and drive off, never giving it a second thought.


Mulch is used around area restaurants to give landscaping a neat appearance and to control weeds, but for a few months in the spring and fall the dry chips can become a fire hazard.

Carelessly discarded cigarettes can ignite wood chips, causing small fires during brush fire season, according to Capt. Edward Ernst, public education officer with the Volunteer Fire Department of Halfway.

The spring brush fire season generally runs from February to June and the fall season is from October to December, he said.


Countywide, there were about 60 mulch fires in 1997 and 1998 combined, according to Ronald Karn, computer aided dispatch administrator for the 911 center.

There have been seven so far this year, he said.

Ernst said Halfway firefighters were called to the Wesel Boulevard Wendy's restaurant 24 times since the spring of 1998.

Employees at the Wendy's use store extinguishers to put out mulch fires about 15 to 20 times a year, said Manager Daniel Lane.

Lane said they are able to put out many of the small fires themselves when they notice them. But since there are few windows in the rear of the restaurant they also rely on patrons to notify them when fires occur, he said.

Lane said the situation also limits the types of landscaping the business is willing to invest in since they must often replace the shrubs when they are burned by fires.

Tony Miller, area manager for Wendy's restaurants, said the Dual Highway restaurant and those at other locations do not have as many outdoor fires because they don't have as much mulch.

He said the situation is more pronounced at the Wesel Boulevard restaurant because the landscaped area, which lines the drive-through lane and includes the outdoor dining area, is larger than at most fast-food stores.

Managers at the Burger King on Dual Highway and Hardees on Pennsylvania Avenue said they have had a few mulch fires last year. Firefighters were called out for a mulch fire the Hardees restaurant on April 2, manager Matt Shetler said.

Although the fires tend to be small and burn slowly, they are a danger to the public and require firefighters to respond, costing time and money, Ernst said.

"It's become a problem. It stems from lack of public knowledge," he said.

He said people may not realize how easily mulch can ignite and that it can self-combust and start fires on its own.

Recent dry conditions make mulch even more flammable, he said.

Ernst said the fire company also is often called to the interstates to fight grass fires on Interstate 81.

Near Shepherdstown, W.Va., a cigarette ignited a patch of grass on March 18. The fire spread to a mulch pile the size of a football field at Lowe Products Co., behind the Potomac Farms Nursery on W.Va. 45, on March 18.

That fire spread to within a mile of the Clarion Hotel and charred wooden power poles, but firefighters prevented damage to buildings.

"People don't realize the problems it can cause. They just throw out their cigarettes and it doesn't take much to light off grass," Ernst said.

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