– Japan: piles of tsunami debris turning into giant bonfires (Telegraph, Sep. 19, 2011):
Piles of decomposing organic waste, metals and rubble from the devastated towns of north-east Japan have been bursting into fire, posing a new hazard to emergency teams tasked with clearing away the debris and people who are still picking through the remains of their homes.
Fire departments in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures have been called out to deal with 24 blazes that had started inside the towering piles of debris that are being gathered on the outskirts of towns that were devastated by the March 11 earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered.
Smoke has been reported emerging from wreckage at a further 13 sites.
The fires are apparently being caused by bacteria in the organic debris or metal reacting with water, fuel or other chemicals that were released when the tsunami – which in places reached a height of 132 feet – swept through these communities.
In many places, pools of oil are still visible in areas that are being cleared, while tens of thousands of vehicles are leaking fuel where they have been piled atop one another as they wait to be taken away to be recycled.
The heat of the summer months have also served to dry out wood, paper, foam and other combustible materials that are being collected together.
Experts are calling on the authorities in the Tohoku region to be more careful when they are gathering debris and to separate it more effectively, although that is proving very difficult given that some 25 million tons of debris was created by the twin disasters.
Authorities have said they will attempt to lay pipes through the dumps to allow the air to circulate and reduce temperatures.