Cause of landfill fire remains a mystery

By Travis Gulbrandson

The cause of last month's fire at the Vermillion Landfill is undetermined.

This was the consensus between five investigators, landfill manager Bob Iverson told members of the Vermillion City Council during a special meeting Monday.

The investigators also said the fire did not start due to faulty wiring, Iverson said.

According to City Manager John Prescott, the insurance company has not provided a total loss estimate yet, although City Finance Officer Mike Carlson said that based on historical costs, one estimate for the building and its contents is $1.4 million.

"It's going to be a long process," Iverson said. "The insurance companies have HDR working on what it would cost to tear the building down … and they're also working on what it would cost to replace the building and the bailer. They have another outfit doing the machinery."

Iverson said landfill workers go through the building each day to estimate how much personal property, including tools, was lost.

"We've got to write that down and figure out the cost of that, and then we'll turn it in to the insurance (company)," he said.

The fire occurred the morning of Oct. 22, and was discovered by employees arriving to work.

"(The building) was just glowing red," Iverson said.

Among the equipment lost in the fire were a small loader, a truck and the baler.

A 2011 CAT 938G wheel loader also was lost, but the council voted to replace it with a 2012 CAT 938K wheel loader at its meeting Monday night.

"It got so hot in there it just burned everything," Iverson said. "There's not too much left in salvage value of any of the equipment."

Many of the beams in the frame of the building reflect this, sagging and warping due to the intense heat.

"It's really weakened the building," Iverson said. "The building inspector told us (not to) park anything around it, because high wind or a lot of snow could just bring it down."

The temperature also reduced the building's concrete floor to something resembling powdery white gravel.

"(It was so hot) it started popping," Iverson said. "It takes 2,000 degrees for concrete to start doing that. It was also helped along when they sprayed the water in. The cold water hit the concrete and made it pop, too. So it was an awful hot fire."

Holes were also cut in the roof by emergency personnel to let the smoke out, and another hole was made in the door to shoot water in.

Despite all the damage, it could have been worse, Iverson said.

"The propane tanks were probably around 20 feet from the building, so they were within a hotspot area, but they were being taken care of," he said. "It was probably within a half-hour to an hour of taking the office building. It was starting to come into the breezeway that's between them, but they got that out."

When a new bailer building is constructed, it probably won't be in the same place as the old one, Iverson said.

"In our future plans, we planned on moving the building anyway, so if we have to move it, maybe we should move it to a place where we won't have to worry about it," he said.

Until then, the landfill is still being used, albeit without the bailer.

"Right now, it's the old-fashioned way of what we used to do," Iverson said. "We haul it up ourselves. Our dozer is equipped to pack garbage. It's not the best way, but it can handle it."

It will take "at least a year" before the landfill gets back to where it was, he said.

"If we decide to go with the bailer and stuff, that's going to take six to seven months to get a bailer. … They're pretty expensive, so they usually don't build them until they have an order," he said.

Iverson extended his thanks to the fire departments from Wakonda, Volin, Gayville and Vermillion for their aid in extinguishing the blaze.

The baler building at the Vermillion Landfill stands charred after an early-morning fire Oct. 22. The cause of the fire is undetermined. (Photo by Travis Gulbrandson)
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