On July 19, firefighters from 13 municipalities battled a raging inferno, as well as outside temperatures nearing 100 degrees, in this quiet community of Whippany in Hanover Township, N.J.
The fire, which began around 3:30 pm, originated near the center units of a six-unit townhouse structure and quickly spread to several of the units. Three units were badly damaged or destroyed by the blaze and the remaining units received varying degrees of smoke, water or fire damage.
Fire companies kept rotating crews throughout the steamy afternoon, to give firefighters the opportunity to recuperate from the intense heat of the day and of the fire. It took crews nearly three hours to bring the fire under control. Two firefighters were transported to a nearby hospital with heat-related conditions. They were treated and released the same day.
A preliminary report by fire officials names 'mulch under a porch' as the fire's most probable point of origin. A thorough investigation by local officials, in conjunction with the Morris County Prosecutor's Office and the Morris County Sheriff's Department Arson Squad, is underway.
Mulch fires have become a widespread area of concern for just about every fire department in the northeast in recent years. Decorative mulch has become a popular item for landscapers as well as the homeowner, to enhance one's property. The problem lies in the fact that mulch is shredded organic matter. This organic matter, over time, starts to decompose. Water trapped underneath helps to speed up the decomposition process. This decomposition process produces heat. Once the temperature produced from within, heats the dry surface material to its kindling point, spontaneous combustion can occur and you have a fire. The general public; and probably most landscapers; have little or no knowledge of this. They tend to place the mulch around bushes and shrubs or through flower gardens that are adjacent to the house or garage. If a fire occurs, it can and most often does, involve the structure; causing loss of property and even loss of life. Spontaneous combustion is not the only problem. All too often, people don't think when they discard a lit cigarette into the bushes or garden containing mulch, before they enter a public building. This is a growing problem now that you can no longer smoke in most public buildings in New Jersey.
It is the author's opinion that a standard could and should be established as to a 'safe distance requirement' when using or placing organic mulch near or around a structure, and should furthermore be enforced under local and state building codes and fire codes. Bags of mulch should have a printed warning on them alerting the user to the potential danger of use AND storage. Landscapers should be made aware of the possibility of fire damage to a customer's home and should be held accountable for any damages incurred by improper placement of the mulch within the "safe zone". Fire departments throughout the country should take the opportunity of Fire Prevention Week to educate the public in their seminars, school fire awareness demonstrations, pamphlet handouts and fund drive letters; as to the potential dangers of organic mulch. The State of Virginia has begun addressing the problem with free pamphlets from the Department of Forestry.( http://www.dof.virginia.gov/fire/resources/pub-Mulch-Fires.pdf )