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Several fire departments called in for fire at waste management facility in Minocqua

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Dean Acheson

Firefighters say lithium-ion batteries may have been the cause of fire at a Minocqua waste transfer station Monday.

About 150 firefighters from 49 fire departments responded to the blaze.

It took them nearly eight hours to extinguish.

The fire call went out just after 9 a.m. when a garbage truck dumped its load containing hot materials inside the large transfer station on Highway J in the town of Minocqua.

The hot materials then ignited other waste.

While there were no visible flames, white smoke and the stench of burning garbage filled the air.

“It appears that a lithium-ion battery may have caused the fire, but we may never know definitively,” says Lynn Morgan, a spokesperson for the Waste Management office in Germantown. WM, as it’s now known, owns and operates the transfer station.

Minocqua Fire Chief Luke Taylor agrees that such a battery issue could have been the cause.

The incident commander says, however, there are other possibilities. Last year, a garbage truck driver hurriedly dumped the burning load near an elementary school. The culprit was a discarded grill with hot coals.

Morgan explains the facility contains separate areas for temporary storage of waste and recycled materials. The structure also houses offices and a shop, both of which were not damaged by the fire.

Buried under tons of garbage, the fire resisted many truckloads of water that was sprayed over it. Taylor says they used two excavators and a WM backhoe to pull the garbage out into the open where it was finally extinguished.

“It went fairly well,” Taylor says of the eight-hour saga. “We were lucky we had a large property for the many trucks.”

No firefighters experienced injuries, or problems with heat exhaustion.

Transfer station serves a wide area

WM’s transfer station in Minocqua collects waste and recyclables from communities in Oneida, Vilas, Forest, Lincoln, and Iron counties in Wisconsin and Gogebic County in Michigan.

From Minocqua, the waste is hauled to their K & W landfill in Ontonagon and recyclables are taken to a recycling plant in Eagle River.

Morgan says they don’t expect the fire to disrupt service to their customers, as they have made arrangements with other facilities in the short-term.

WM officials have not yet assessed damage to the building. It did not have a fire suppression system, she adds. The heat scorched portions of the metal clad structure.

The fire chief says the building’s exterior is intact, but it appears steel beams overhead may have sagged a bit from the intense heat.

Traffic moved on Highway J, but at times was stopped to allow tanker trucks in and out of the driveway.

The deal with dead batteries

“Lithium-ion batteries are a growing cause of fires and never belong in waste or recycling containers,” Morgan says.

She cites a US E.P.A. report that concludes “fires at waste and recycling operations caused by lithium batteries are underreported.”

According to the report, at least 245 fires have been attributed to the batteries over the last 7 years, and the problem is growing as the batteries become more common in electronic devices and vaping items.

“Both the number of facilities affected and number of fires have increased dramatically in recent years, growing from only two fires being reported at a single facility in 2013 to 65 fires reported across 16 different facilities in 2020,” the report reads.

Most batteries should be recycled, but different materials have different guidelines. No batteries belong in a recycling container, according to WM’s website.

To find a drop-off location, check with large retailers, hardware, home supply, or battery stores, your local government, household hazardous waste collection sites, or visit call2recycle.org.

For proper disposal of lithium-ion battery, tape over the terminals and drop it off at a battery collection point. Never place it in your waste or recyclables.

If possible, recycle ordinary alkaline and nickel batteries at collection sites, or by ordering a WM BatteryTracker container. Otherwise, place them in your waste, and, again, never in recycling.