Landfill fire smokes Janesville's east side

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
— One of the largest fires at the Janesville landfill in recent decades combined with strong winds to send dense smoke through businesses and homes Monday afternoon.

No one was reported injured. No cause for the fire was immediately reported.

The RathGibson plant at 2505 Foster Ave. was evacuated for about two hours, shutting down production there.

Strong winds gusting up to 43 mph pushed the smoke horizontally into industrial, commercial and residential areas. Visibility was extremely limited for a time on Kennedy Road, which was partially closed for more than an hour, with the southbound lane shut down but the northbound lane open.

Firefighters stood by at the RathGibson plant in case the fire spread. It did not.

RathGibson production manager Chris Wellnitz said two tanks in the path of the smoke contained non-explosive gasses, but wooden pallets stored there might have been at risk. The fire did not spread outside of the landfill, however.

Fire department acting shift commander Jody Stowers said it was hard to say what chemicals might have been in this smoke because of the variety of materials in the landfill.

The fire burned telephone poles and foam rubber, among other materials, the fire department reported.

The foam rubber is waste from a car-seat factory and is approved for temporarily covering the landfill, which is required by law, said John Whitcomb, operations director for the city's public works department.

Stowers said it's unhealthy to breathe any smoke, but he would think people would get out of the way so their exposure would be minimal. A few people were seen walking through the smoke, however.

One was Wayne Phillips, a retiree who takes long walks most days. He turned east after encountering smoke on Kennedy Road. He said the smoke didn't bother him, and he calmly walked away from the smoky area on his way to get a hamburger at Burger King on Milton Avenue.

Shane Suehring, who lives a block east of Kennedy Road on Sherwood Drive, was working in his garage. He also seemed unfazed by the smoke, which smelled of burned plastic.

Suehring said the biggest effect was frequent traffic on his street as motorists avoided the smoke or police checkpoint.

"It's normally pretty quiet here," Suehring said.

Firefighters were called at 1:09 p.m. and remained on scene for about 3 1/2 hours.

Stowers said it appears the fire was out after massive amounts of water—35,000 gallons—were poured onto it. Landfill workers used dozers, loaders and compactors to cover the affected areas with soil.

Police would be asked to check the landfill overnight in case the fire reignited, Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said he's seen about a dozen landfill fires since 1989, and often the cause is never discovered.

This fire is one of the largest Whitcomb could recall. The good news is the fire seemed to be near the surface, which made it easier to handle, Whitcomb said.

Fires that start deep in the landfill can require extensive excavation of trash to extinguish, Whitcomb said.

At about 2:30 p.m., white smoke was still visible in the area of Milton Avenue at the Janesville Mall, but businesses seemed to be operating as usual.

Wellnitz said about 75 workers were at the RathGibson plant Monday. He said the shutdown would cause production materials to become scrap.

"It's always a problem when you have to shut machines down and restart them," Wellnitz said.

RathGibson makes stainless steel tubing.

Whitcomb said the fire damaged part of the landfill's gas-collection system, but it was too early to tell how extensive the damage was. The system uses plastic piping.

Last updated: 8:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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