Firefighter Training: Responding to Dumpster and Trash Fires


It has been said that firefighters “risk a lot to save a life, risk a little to save little, and risk nothing to save nothing.” With that in mind, your first thought at a dumpster or trash fire should be, “This is garbage.” There is no value to discarded items, and there is no need to risk your life trying to save them.

On December 29, 2009, several Wisconsin firefighters were injured, and one died from injuries sustained when a large explosion occurred while they were operating at a dumpster fire in the parking lot of a manufacturing plant. This could have happened anywhere in America. When it comes to dumpster and trash fires, there is typically no civilian life hazard; firefighters are the life hazard. Because of this, the primary concern of an incident commander (IC) and all who are working on scene should be to take appropriate precautions to protect firefighters and prevent injury.

At a warehouse fire, you can always obtain material data safety sheets to determine what hazardous materials are present. With dumpster and garbage fires, this is not always possible. Regardless of any container markings, the contents inside dumpsters are ultimately unknown. Even if the dumpster is in front of a construction site, you cannot assume it is full of scrap wood and packaging materials. It is always possible that a variety of hazardous materials such as chemicals, biological waste, explosives, polychlorinated biphenyls, asbestos, plastics, and sharp items such as glass and nails [which can penetrate fire boots and personal protective equipment (PPE)] were illegally dumped (photo 1). It is essential for firefighters to understand that, other than for a suspected or confirmed life hazard (such as vagrants living in the area or kids playing), there is no reason to enter a dumpster. Further, by using the reach and penetration of the fire stream and by remaining upwind and using tools such as pike poles, firefighters should remain at a safe distance to avoid injury and the threat of having their gear contaminated.

(1) Firefighters keep their distance at a smoldering dumpster fire.Photo by Joseph Viscuso.
(1) Firefighters keep their distance at a smoldering dumpster fire. (Photo by Joseph Viscuso.)

The type and construction of dumpsters add to the hazards of dumpster fires. The three most common dumpster types are open-top, roll-off (generally found at construction sites); compactor/closer, roll-off (typically found at commercial sites); and flip-top (usually found at small businesses or multifamily occupancies). All of these dumpster types may have unknown contents, resulting in unpredictable fire behavior and reaction. Closed containers will smolder and pose a threat of backdraft; large, open-top containers will radiate heat; and plastic lids on flip-top containers will melt from fire exposure.

(2) Consider the possibility of the illegal dumping of hazardous materials at all dumpster fires. Photo by Anthony DeLucia.)
(2) Consider the possibility of the illegal dumping of hazardous materials at all dumpster fires. (Photo by Anthony DeLucia.)

Routinely, a single engine should provide enough personnel and water to effectively extinguish a typical dumpster fire, but firefighters should avoid becoming complacent and prepare for the worst-case scenario. Besides the content factor and firefighter safety, the IC should look to secure the scene and monitor exposures. Dumpsters are usually positioned near exposures, and these fires typically produce a heavy volume of fire and extremely high heat. When the exterior of an exposure is threatened, additional lines are required. You will also need to call for enough staffing to allow you to effectively search the interior of the structures. If the fire extends into a nearby exposure, this incident becomes a working structure fire, and a minimum of a full-alarm assignment will be required.

FRANK VISCUSO is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a tour commander in Kearny, New Jersey. He is also a speaker who specializes in leadership development, team building, and customer service. Viscuso is a level 2 New Jersey fire instructor, co-creator of FireOpsOnline, and the author of six books including Step Up and Lead and Fireground Operational Guides. He is a contributor to Fire Engineering.

MICHAEL TERPAK is a 37-year veteran of the fire service and a deputy chief and citywide tour commander in the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department. Throughout his career, he has worked in the city’s Lafayette and Greenville areas with Engines 10 and 17, Ladder 12, and Rescue 1; as chief of the city’s 2nd Battalion; and as former chief in charge of the city’s Training Division. He lectures nationally on fire/rescue topics and is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey-based consulting firm that prepares firefighters and fire officers studying for promotional exams. He has a BS degree in fire safety administration from the City University of New Jersey and is the author of Fire Ground Size-Up, Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics, and Fireground Operational Guides (Fire Engineering).

Operational Guide for Dumpster and Trash Fires

Take the following steps when confronted with a dumpster or trash fire.

  1. Wear full PPE and use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
    • You cannot predict what is in a dumpster. It may contain hazardous materials and containers that pose explosive threats.
    • Stay out of the smoke, work with the wind at your back, and use the reach of your stream for protection.
    • Firefighters must remain on air.
  2. Establish a safety zone to protect firefighters.
    • Consistently monitor firefighters, and evaluate their condition.
    • Position fire apparatus to shield firefighters from approaching vehicles.
    • Use cones, flares, and caution tape to keep vehicles and onlookers at a safe distance.
    • Have law enforcement respond to assist in pedestrian and traffic control.
    • Consider topography, runoff, wind direction, weather conditions, and other hazards such as overhead wires when you position firefighters.
    • If you suspect the presence of hazardous materials, call for a hazmat team or an environmental specialist.
  3. Establish an adequate water supply.
    • There should be a continuous water supply.
    • Prepare for a stubborn fire and for possible extension to exposures.
  4. Stretch an adequate size hoseline.
    • At minimum, use a 1¾-inch hoseline.
    • Use the full reach, protection, and penetrating power of the line to extinguish the fire.
    • Position the stream to extinguish the fire and protect the exposures.
    • Consider using the master stream from an apparatus-mounted deluge gun or deck monitor when flooding and hydraulically overhauling dumpsters.
    • – Position the engine to sweep the dumpster.
    • For very large, deep-seated fires, use an elevated stream.
    • – Firefighters should remain on air, on the platform, and out of the smoke when possible.
    • When the time is right to approach the dumpster, do so from the corners to avoid being struck by objects that may be blown from the side openings.
    • Monitor water runoff.
  5. Consider the possibility of victims.
    • Kids or vagrants may be in the dumpster.
    • – If you suspect there is a victim present, restrict the use of water and make a thorough and safe search as soon as possible.
    • Consider victims downwind from the fire (in the path of smoke).
  6. Monitor all nearby exposures.
    • If the dumpster or trash is near a building, monitor for extension.
    • If possible, roll the dumpster away from the exposed building.
    • Look for signs of the following:
      – Smoke entering the building (through windows usually above the dumpster).
      – Cracks, holes, or other openings on the exterior wall that allow for the travel of fire and smoke.
      – Direct flame contact or radiant heat threat.
      – Flammable siding.
      – Flying, rising embers.
    • Stretch a hoseline to wet down threatened exposures.
    • If severely threatened with direct flame contact, enter the exposure and conduct a thorough examination for fire and distressed occupants from within.
      – Firefighters should use a thermal imaging camera.
    • Remove a portion of the combustible siding to check for extension and smoldering embers.
    • If you suspect or discover extension, call for water and help early. This is no longer a dumpster fire; it is now a structure fire.
    • Consider the possibility of a change in wind speed and direction.
  7. Techniques for overhauling dumpsters include the following:
    • Avoid manual overhaul and direct contact with contents.
    • Do not enter the dumpster.
    • Use hose streams to hydraulically overhaul contents.
    • As soon as possible, secure the dumpster by chocking the wheels to prevent movement (especially after it is full of water).
    • Remain upwind, and use pike poles to move rubbish.
    • Remain on air. Remember-you don’t know what’s burning.
    • Use pike poles (one on each side) to open and close lids.
    • Notify the carrier or owner to assist in cleanup.
    • If the presence of hazardous materials is suspected, notify the appropriate authorities.

Additional Links

Dumpster and Trash fires

Drill of the Week: Dumpster Fires

Haz-Mat Survival Tips: “Fuming” Trash Containers and Collection Trucks

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