New Brunswick

Proper care of mulch helps prevent fires: fire marshal

New Brunswick Fire Marshal Michael Lewis says mulch can be a very volatile product if it is not properly cared for during extended periods of dry weather.   

New Brunswick's fire marshal says mulch can be a very volatile product if not properly cared for

Dry black mulch ignites easily and, because it's often right next to a building, leads to a structure fire. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

New Brunswick Fire Marshal Michael Lewis says mulch can be a very volatile product if it is not properly cared for during extended periods of dry weather.   

Using the example of a discarded cigarette butt, Lewis said it could smolder for days before igniting. He added even a broken piece of glass can act as an ignition as well as underground wiring for low voltage lighting . 

"Any of those items can spark, really get into that material," he said. "It can smolder for days, then it can pop up and cause a fire." 

Mulch has been linked to two fires in Prince Edward Island in July. On July 17, a 29-unit apartment building in Charlottetown was destroyed in an early morning fire that started in mulch.

Provincial fire Marshal Michael Lewis shows how quickly dry mulch can catch on fire. 0:54
On July 28, a building at North Winds Inn that contained 16 suites and meeting rooms was destroyed after mulch in a flower bed caught fire. Fredericton resident, Peter Slipp was burned on his face and arm as he helped rescue a guest from a room on the second floor. That man suffered burns as well as the two made their way out of the building.

Last August, the town hall in Montague, P.E.I., burned to the ground after a fire started in mulch.

Quick ignition

Lewis said mulch is OK to use as long as it is a safe distance from a building and watered during dry weather. (Joe McDonald/CBC)
To show how easy it was to ignite, Lewis demonstrated with three foil pans containing damp sod, damp black mulch and black mulch that had been dry for about a week. 

After throwing burning matches into the sod and damp mulch, Lewis showed CBC News how quickly the dry mulch can catch fire.

"The composition of dry mulch and any bit of wind, any bit of sun is really going to make that product smolder and burn quickly."

Lewis said this will happen whether the lit match is discarded on top of the pile or further down. 

"Wind accelerates the drying process," he explained. "Wind fans and give oxygen to the fire." 

Fires spreads fast

Mulch is a common product used in landscaping and is often right next to a building or residence. Lewis said that means the fire can spread quickly to the structure. 

Lewis said any time there are long periods of dry weather from June to September, fire departments respond to many of these types of calls. 

"Just in the last 10 years alone we've had almost 200 incidents alone in the province in which the mulch was the point of ignition for the fire or was involved directly in the fire." 

The fire marshal recommended that homeowners that do have mulch have it at least half a metre from the house. He added that space should include non-combustible materials such as sand or rock or pavement. 

"And if you are using mulch, make sure it's kept wet on a regular basis," said Lewis. "It can be safe if you make sure it is kept wet." 

Lewis demonstrated how easy it is to ignite dry mulch by also trying to light sod and damp mulch. (Joe McDonald/CBC)
Keeping the mulch to a minimum thickness of 15 centimetres is also helpful as well as removing old mulch when putting new material down. 

"After a wet period you can have mulch at the top layer be wet but that moisture doesn't make it down to the low layers so it still poses a significant fire risk." 

Lewis cautioned smokers to dispose of cigarette butts in an ashtray, bucket of sand or water. 

David MacKinley, assistant deputy chief with the Fredericton Fire Department, said the number of calls for fires involving mulch have increased in the city over the past number of years. 

He said calls have gone from a dozen about five years ago to 39 in the past year. He added two of last year's calls resulted in structure fires. 

While none have ended in fatalities, MacKinley said mulch is not a product he would have next to his home. 

With files from Rachel Cave, Nicole Williams, Kevin Yarr