Warning from southwest apartment complex residents after dirt starts to combust

Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 9:59 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - It seemed surreal for some residents at a southwest Portland apartment complex when they saw smoke coming out of the ground outside one of their buildings Wednesday evening.

Shannon Campbell was in her apartment on Southwest Condor Avenue when her neighbor started yelling about smoke billowing out of the ground behind her apartment. Campbell ran over to investigate and saw something bizarre.

“There was a round circle in the sawdust,” Campbell said. “It was smoking and it was black. It has a really strong smoke smell.”

Campbell said she tried to dump water on it but it didn’t do much to stop the smoke.

“The top was cool but when I dug around, it got hotter and hotter when I went down,” Campbell said.

Portland Fire and Rescue arrived and they quickly put more water on the smoke and dug up what was burning. Firefighters on scene told Campbell that the smoke was likely from sawdust in mulch, that was mixed in with the dirt, that spontaneously combusted in the hot temperatures.

“They said this time of year it happens quite often if you put some kind of chemical sitting on there for a while,” Campbell said. “Sawdust is combustible I guess.”

Campbell thinks cleaning chemicals that dripped from awnings at her complex helped fuel the smoke. Regardless, the National Fire Association says spontaneous combustion fires are very common. More than 14,000 happen a year in the United State. Oil soaked rags, cleaning chemicals, and sawdust are blamed for starting most of those fires.

Though firefighters were able to stop the ground from smoking, Campbell said she will be keeping an eye on the mulch outside of her apartment now. She also suggests other people should be careful too, especially with hot temperatures in the forecast this week.

“When you have hot times and dry wood and sawdust around, you should be wary of what you set on it and pay attention making sure that if it’s really dry, you’re not putting cigarettes on there,” Campbell said. “If you see smoke, it’s something you probably want to dig out so it’s not smoldering from the bottom.”

FOX 12 did reach out to Portland Fire and Rescue for comment about the incident, but we didn’t hear back. They did say people should store flammable chemicals in proper containers and cabinets that can regulate temperature. FOX 12 also reached out to Campbell’s apartment complex, but we didn’t hear back.