Green waste bins a spontaneous combustion danger

Green waste bins a spontaneous combustion danger »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A Bakersfield man said his green waste bin is the reason his house caught fire. Mike Thomas said spontaneous combustion is to blame, leaving big repair bills. He's also worried that he's never been warned about the hazard.

"We get several calls a year," Bakersfield Fire Department Battalion Chief Garth Milam said, "without a doubt."

He called the situation not uncommon, but everything has to be just right - or wrong - for a fire to break out.

That seems to be what happened July 31 when Thomas got a frantic call from his daughters, saying the house was on fire. He rushed right back to his home in southwest Bakersfield.

"We pulled up, there were three trucks in front of the house," Thomas said. "There were firemen in our garage, firemen all over the place, the arson squad."

Thomas said it was lucky a neighbor had pulled up, saw the fire, and called 911. The blaze had started outside the garage. That's where Thomas stood with an arson investigator when the blaze was out.

"I said, 'Hey what happened?' His basis was, the green trash can caught on fire," Thomas related.

Fire Chief Milam said a green waste bin can certainly erupt into flames if it gets hot enough, there's some oxygen available, and something like grass clippings.

"You put the grass together and allow it to decompose, and as it's decomposing it generates heat," Milam explained. "Now, if it gets enough oxygen, and it has no place to send its heat, it must catch on fire."

Thomas said the blaze melted the green waste bin and the garbage can next to it. The fire damaged the gas and electric meters on the garage wall, flames shot up the wall, took out his cable TV dish, satellite, and got into the eves and even inside the wall.

"We have around $9,000 damage to the house," Thomas said. "And an extra $120 to get another flammable trash can out here."

He's working with his insurance company but complained about the cost to replace two trash cans at $60 each.

However, the city officials eventually offered the family used trash cans for free, wife Dawn Thomas said.

But Mike Thomas is frustrated. He was using the green waste bin like he was supposed to.

"It was potting soil, some dead vegetables, and very little grass was inside the bin at the time," he said.

Milam said those things can still catch fire, under just the wrong conditions.

To avoid this hazard, Milam said you have to take away one part of what goes into a fire. Don't let heat build up as much in the can, or don't let air get inside.

"With a properly fitting lid, and no oxygen, you can't have a fire," Milam said. "If the lid's off, and all the heat can dissipate, then the problem's going away, too."

The chief said grass clippings are the worst hazard for this, because of the moisture content. An arson investigator also suggested homeowners take bins out to be picked up as soon as possible.

Dawn Thomas said the fire at their house was on a Tuesday, the green waste pick-up is Thursdays. Mike Thomas said from now on, he might keep his green waste can in the middle of the yard away from the house. And, he has one more idea.

"I'd like to see some warning labels on the cans," Thomas said. "And I'd like everybody to know, they're not safe."

Milam said Thomas "may have a point" about warnings. But he said there's always something of a mystery about these fires. It's not possible to say exactly what happened, because the evidence all gets burned up.