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North Oldham Fire officials warn of recent mulch fires

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By Tracy Harris

While everyone loves a well-manicured lawn, firefighters are cautioning against one common landscaping element — mulch.

Crews from the North Oldham Fire Department have responded to two mulch fires this summer, according to Assistant Chief Don Dahl.

Dahl said mulch, which is a constant state of decay, builds heat inside the pile. 

In many instances, a cigarette or landscape light causes the mulch to ignite — but fires can also occur without an ignition source. 

“Mulch makes great kindling and the combination of heat build-up and a low ignition point means a fire can actually start on its own,” he said.

And, he said, it is fresh mulch that tends to self-ignite, while drier mulch is more likely to ignite from an outside source.

Dahl said it is suspected that at least one, if not both, of the recent North Oldham fires started without an ignition source.

A May fire in Hunting Creek spread smoke into the attic and upper floor and caused severe damage to the landscape lighting and plants, Dahl said.

He added that the landscape lighting could not be ruled out as the ignition source, but believes it is also possible the fresh mulch self-ignited.

The more recent fire occurred June 7 in Hillcrest, causing damage only to the landscaping.

“The lighting itself is not believed to be the cause of ignition,” he said. “No smoking materials in either case were used by occupants or found at or near the scene.”

Dahl said although neither house sustained significant damage, it is likely a mulch fire could extend into the eaves of an attic.

And houses with combustible siding are even more susceptible, he said.

The number of mulch fires is higher than usual across the country this year, with many fire departments issuing warnings to residents.

Lexington Fire Department officials said they responded to 27 grass and mulch fires in a single 72-hour span in April, attributing most of the fires to improperly discarded cigarettes and unusually dry weather.

In North Canton, Ohio, fire officials are blaming mulch for a hotel fire that shut down parts of I-77 June 8.

There, a mulch bed alongside the hotel caught fire, sending flames into the stairwell and attic, causing at least $2 million in damage to the building. Officials have not identified an ignition source.

Similar fires sometimes occur inside hay bales for the same reasons, according to Dahl, but the bales are usually stored away from structures.

Dahl said the best solution is to not use mulch around any structure. At a minimum, he recommends keeping mulch several feet away from any structure.

Landscape lighting should also be kept clear of mulch.

Smokers should also take caution to not toss cigarettes off decks or porches or in potted plant containers.

While discarded cigarettes and landscape lighting can cause mulch fires, Dahl cautions residents to be aware that much can self-ignite.

“Don’t put it beside or under anything you want to keep,” he said.