Terra Sigillata

Spontaneous combustion

I have to admit to feeling a bit unnerved by smelling fire all day yesterday, the anniversary of the US terrorist attacks.

Little did I know that we’ve got a little case of overzealous municipal composting gone awry:

A massive pile of leaves and wood at a city of Durham composting facility ignited over the weekend…Durham officials said in a media release issued Monday that the giant pile of rotting organic matter is thought to have spontaneously caught fire.

I was just reminded over the weekend that alligators make compost piles to generate the heat necessary to incubate their eggs. However, I never really gave much thought to the amount of heat generated by a city compost pile:

Spontaneous combustion can occur in compost piles as a result of the breakdown of organic materials, which can produce intense heat. A December 2004 article in BioCycle, a trade journal serving the composting and organics recycling industry, urges the operators of large-scale facilities to prevent fires by using heavy machinery to turn over the mounds regularly and to avoid piling organic material too high.

So, all you composters: be careful out there.


  1. #1 Aerik
    September 13, 2006

    Leaves and wood? Big deal. You should see the shit that happens when a partially wooded area is cleared for residential zoning, and giant piles of just sawdust and woodships sit around all summer absorbing gas fumes, exhaust,and oxygen from the construction going around them.

  2. #2 Sid Schwab
    September 13, 2006

    In high school I worked for a landscaper; there was a huge pile of bark dust we drove to to load up our truck. I got to sticking raw hotdogs into the middle of it in the morning and coming back over lunch to pull them out: nicely cooked, with a smokey sort of flavor. Not sure what all was there in addition to the heat, but surely it’s what started me on the path to science.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    September 13, 2006

    Dr Schwab, I think you’ve hit on a new cooking fad that we should market (or you could just write another book!). Think of the culinary delights that could be had by cooking hot dogs, sausages, chicken or ribs in compost piles made of mulch from mesquite, hickory, or fruit trees. You are a genius, my friend.

    Surgeons seem to always have the most interesting stories of what they did before going into medicine.

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