At least fourteen fire departments battled a multiacre mulch fire Monday afternoon and evening at a retail and supply landscaping business.
Reddish smoke poured from mountains of mulch as firefighters attacked the blaze, which has been burning for at least seven hours, from three sides of the Oldcastle Lawn and Garden property on Queeny Avenue.
The 20-to-25-acre property took on a twilight-like atmosphere as smoke covered the sky.
Brian Whitaker with St. Clair County Emergency Managment said in a Facebook live video they had more than 50 firefighters at the scene as of about 6:30 p.m. Monday, as opposed to the nine in the area around 4 p.m.
Whitaker said they were struggling with a water shortage and were also concerned by the severe thunderstorms forecast to hit the area Monday night. A severe weather warning was issued for much of the metro-east Monday night with warnings of 60 mph winds and nickel-sized hail. The warning was canceled before 9 p.m.
Red Cross and St. Clair County Special Emergency Service were at the fire to keep firefighters safe.
“Water supply is low in the area; we’ve got a lot of tankers working. And we’re making sure we keep all these firemen safe and well hydrated as they’re dealing with this incident,” Whitaker said in the video.
Brigitte Sotter, human resources manager for the company, said mulch fires like this one start when the interior of mulch piles get hotter and hotter until they finally combust on an especially hot day.
“It could have started two weeks ago for all we know,” Sotter said. “And then it finally just gets to the point today where it’s nice and warm, and it’s just like boom — kind of takes off.”
Temperatures on Monday reached 95 degrees with close to 40 percent humidity.
Crews were also working to keep the fire away from the multiple buildings on the opposite side of the property.
Jason Phillips, plant manager, said high winds, like the 18 mph gusts Monday, cut through the mulch piles, adding enough oxygen to ignite the wood.
Phillips said about 20,000 yards of mulch were on fire Monday, but most of the actual flames were just on the surface of the piles.
“We’ve had small ones before,” Phillips said. “But this is definitely by far one of the biggest ones we’ve had.”
According to Sotter, the fire probably began around 12:30 p.m and could burn into the night.
“We could still be here tomorrow,” she said.
Oldcastle crews and firefighters worked together, dumping water on the piles with tankers and pouring sand on the mulch with construction equipment.
Fire departments responding to the incident included Cahokia, Sauget, Prairie DuPont, Camp Jackson, Columbia, Millstadt, Villa Hills, State Park, Madison and Belleville as of Monday evening. Waterloo and Lebanon fire departments were sent a request for tankers at 7 p.m. Monday.