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Mysterious blaze: Officials baffled by overnight fire that burned junk vehicles

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| May 28, 2009 12:00 AM

A fire that consumed about 270 junk vehicles at the Lincoln County Landfill in Libby went unnoticed until workers found the smoldering heap when they showed up for work Tuesday morning.

“I can’t believe that somebody at some point didn’t see a heavy thick black plume of smoke from all the hydrocarbon in the cars,” said Steve Lauer, assistant fire marshal for Libby Volunteer Fire Department. “It dumbfounds me – I haven’t found a soul yet who knows anything about it.”

Officials believe the fire occurred sometime between 6 p.m. Monday after a car hauler brought in two junk cars and 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Workers found the heap of vehicles completely gutted of tires and upholstery, while bordering trees and grass were still smoking. 

“We took the water truck around and put out the rest,” said Ray Miller, who is manager of the landfill and a firefighter for LVFD. “It looks like a big bunch of melted, burned up metal.”

A log showed 279 junk vehicles at the landfill with 10 of those – located in a separate location – not burning.

If the fire had begun before dark, people would have seen the smoke, Lauer said, and if it burned through the night, passers-by should have witnessed the glow of the flames.

“There was probably 20-30 foot flame lengths with that fuel,” Lauer said. “There was a tree approximately 50 feet high that burnt all the way to the top.”

Surprisingly, the fire appeared to have no impact on Libby’s air quality.

“The wind must have been blowing in the right direction,” said Kathi Hooper, director of the county department of environmental health.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation but Lauer and Miller speculate that it could have either been an act of arson or that someone who was stealing car parts unintentionally started the fire.

“It could have been someone who was salvaging parts and threw a cigarette down in some gasoline. You never know,” Miller said.

If it was someone taking parts, Lauer speculated that the subject could have come through the backside of the landfill, through the trees, with an ATV. If the subject used a torch to cut parts, a spark could have caused a fire.

“I see no accidental cause or reason for that fire to occur,” Lauer said. “The landfill was closed so nobody legally should have been on the property.”

The state crushes the cars and uses the money from the metal to fund a program that hauls junk vehicles away at no cost. Miller is unsure of the monetary impact of the fire, if any at all.

“What that would do for the values of the car, I have no clue,” Miller said, but with all the non-metal parts burnt out, “it may actually improve (the price) a little bit because it would be a clean metal.”

Lauer believes that witnesses are out there.

“My guess is that somebody did notice the fire,” Lauer said, “but so often we’ve seen in the past that the landfill is conducting some kind of burn up there.”

Miller and Lauer hope that once people are aware of what happened, they may come forward with information about when the fire occurred or if there were any people or vehicles nearby.

“We probably will never know (what happened) unless someone comes forward,” Miller said.

Twenty years ago, to the week, a fire at the same landfill caused an estimated $350,000 in damage to equipment and buildings. Miller, who has worked at the landfill for 21 years, recalls that the state fire marshal determined that an electrical problem with one of the machines caused the fire. A passerby noticed the smoke and flames around 8 p.m. and called the sheriff’s office.