Cause Of Speonk Mulch Fire Remains A Mystery

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The Southampton Town fire marshal’s office still has not determined the cause of a large mulch fire at a sand and gravel company in Speonk that burned for almost 20 hours over two days last month, and which sent two firefighters to the hospital.

The investigative report completed by Fire Marshal John Rankin, who did not return several messages left over the past two weeks, states that there “was no evidence located at the scene to definitively conclude the fire to be of natural or unnatural origins.” His report also notes that his examination of the scene reveals that the fire began on the side of a large mulch pile, estimated to be approximately 30 feet wide at its base, 25 feet tall, and 100 feet in length, and eventually ignited an adjacent pile of logs and trees at the Hampton Sand Corporation, located on the west side of Speonk-Riverhead Road.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation has not issued any violations against the company in connection with the fire, which started in the evening on April 20 and was not fully extinguished until 4 p.m. the following day, according to Aphrodite Montalvo, a spokeswoman for the DEC. She added that Hampton Sand Corporation, which has been registered with the DEC since 1995, has never been cited by the state and is permitted to take in uncontaminated concrete, asphalt, rock, brick, soil and wood.

Ms. Montalvo also noted that the DEC was still working with the Southampton Town fire marshal’s office to determine if the operators of the business violated any restrictions regarding the height of the mulch pile.

Stanley Warshaw, the operator of the Hampton Sand Corporation, said during a recent interview that he believes that trespassers started the blaze, which was the second to take place on the Speonk property in five days. On April 15, firefighters quickly contained a small blaze that also began on a pile of mulch.

“The water they used to put out the first fire caused my mulch to get very hot,” Mr. Warshaw said. “Water is combustible, and it was very dry [at the time].

“It happens sometimes—fires starting from within [a mulch pile],” he added.

Mr. Warshaw explained that he often finds tire tracks left behind by ATV drivers who break into the business over the weekend, and speculated that the heat from an off-road vehicle engine, or a carelessly discarded cigarette, also could have ignited the second blaze.

Ms. Montalvo said the Hampton Sand Corporation was issued two notices of violation—the equivalent of warnings, since the owners are given time to correct them—this past winter, though neither issue discovered by state investigators would have contributed to the mulch fire. She explained that visits conducted on January 20 and February 1 revealed that the company had accepted some unauthorized wood, defined by the DEC as painted or chemically treated wood, and is now storing some concrete on-site for longer than the 18 months permitted.

“This kind of material, we’re giving them about a year to get rid of it,” she said, referring to the pile of concrete that she described as “sizeable.” She added: “We’ll be checking on their progress.”

Mr. Warshaw said he has been working with the DEC and that an agent had been visiting the site since the second fire. He also said the first notice of violation from the state was for having two pieces of painted wood and another piece of chemically treated wood on-site. “There is zero-tolerance today,” he said of the rules regarding contaminated wood.

Eastport Fire Department Chief Ryan King said about 45 of his volunteers responded to the second blaze and received assistance from 37 fire and ambulance companies. He noted that mulch fires are fairly common, explaining that his department responded to a smaller fire last year at a business located on the east side of Speonk-Riverhead Road, across from Hampton Sand Corporation.

Chief King explained that last month’s fire was challenging in that it took “tremendous amounts of water” to extinguish it, and there are no fire hydrants nearby. As a result, tankers had to dump water into portable pools that were set up on the property. Crews also had to utilize excavators to move mulch and prevent the flames from spreading. Strong winds also helped make the fire difficult to contain, he said.

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