& root causes
Recycling plants, metal recycling yards, salvage yards, vehicle auction houses and vehicle dismantling facilities have all seen a significant increase in fire incidents over the last few years. Could the stockpiling of inventory due to China’s recycling restrictions, the increase of lithium-ion batteries in our waste stream, or simply just the increased level of heat and dryness be the culprit causing the increase of fires being experienced?
The Truth is that the nature of the scrap metal and vehicle recycling industry already leaves it vulnerable to fires. A scrap yard will receive flammable materials like propane and gas tanks, paints, oil, grease, lubricants, plastics, wood, tyres, and other hazardous materials that are co-mingled with recyclables. Without careful sorting taking place pre-processing, this material may easily end up in end up being crushed, cut, compacted or shredded during the recycling process.
Oils and Hazardous Fluids
This includes paints, solvents, motor oil, coolant, and fuel such as petrol or diesel. Any one of them can easily become the source of a fierce blaze, and similarly release highly toxic gases into the atmosphere. Gas cylinders and flammable liquids containers are often to the blame for fires igniting.
When they catch fire, they can end up releasing chemicals and hazardous waste into the surrounding area and ecosystems, causing harm to human and animal life alike. For this reason alone, there’s very strict limitations on how many tyres can be stored on a single site at once. Scrap car breakers can be subject to strict fines (or even prosecution) if they breach these limits.
While you might not think of most metals as being easily flammable, we may surprise you – there are plenty of metals which can catch fire! This is because most metals combine with oxygen to some extent, such as during the corrosion or rusting process. However, this usually happens over a significant length of time. Under the right conditions though, where temperatures are hot enough, almost any metal can combust. It’s especially problematic when the metal is ground up into dust, called swarf, as normal fire extinguishers aren’t always the best way to put out these kind of fires. More often than not, they’ll do nothing more than move the swarf around, basically blasting tiny bits of flaming metal into the air. For this reason, special fire extinguishers are sometimes required, especially for those metals which are a great deal more reactive than others.
Magnesium is highly flammable, for example, and firefighters reserve a particular dislike for it. Complicating things for scrap car dealers is the fact that magnesium is often used in engine parts and alloy wheels, so is a near-constant fire hazard. Firefighters often use dry powder agent or sand to put out magnesium fires.
Ferrous materials in the form of iron swarf, steel swarf, borings, shavings, or cuttings, are categorised as materials susceptible to spontaneous fire and self-heating.
Lithium-ion batteries can often be another major culprit for scrapyard fires. More and more products are made with lithium-ion batteries and most consumers don’t have readily available, convenient means to safely dispose of them. This means an increasing number of these batteries are finding their way into the waste stream, including scrap metal recycling yards and end-of-life vehicle treatment centres.
The HSE defines hot work as the: ‘use of open fires, flames and work involving the application of heat by means of tools or equipment.’ Hot work is any process that generates flames, sparks or heat. It includes welding, cutting, grinding and sawing and particularly the application of heat to free rusted on bolts etc.
Common types of hot work include:
Welding, brazing, and soldering.
Grinding and cutting.
The use of open flames, blow-lamps, and torches.
Scrap yards are often found in remote or industrial areas, as environmental permits ensure that they are kept away from neighbourhoods. The remote locations often mean longer response times, thus allowing an undiscovered fire to gain substantial headway before firefighters arrive. Access to the scrap yard is often also an issue. Scrap yards are prone to theft, trespassing and vandalism. The owners are often creative in devising ways to secure their properties, sometimes parking heavy equipment to block vehicle access. Retaining walls, fencing and the much-loved barbed wire are also extremely common and can create challenges for firefighters trying to do their work. A breeching or extended forcible-entry operation is often required before the first drop of water can be applied to the fire.
With vehicle access limited in many locations, being able to get fire fighting appliances to the source of a blazing metal pile can be a challenge.
Salvage cars are typically stacked four or five stories high to a maximise storage space. These seemingly stable piles may shift, slide or come crashing down due to the force or weight of fire fighting water and / or the softening of the ground due to water run-off. These fires can get extremely hot, as the metal of both vehicles, building structure or racking weakens, the piles are prone to shift.
Scrap metal is often stored in large piles where it is exposed to the elements. Then when oxidation takes place it makes the loads more combustible and susceptible to ignition. Sometimes the temperature can reach hundreds of degrees Celsius in a matter of minutes, without apparently producing flames, while smouldering fire may have been developing under the surface of the cargo.