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Using Thermal Imaging Cameras to Preemptively Detect Landfill Fires

Monday Oct 24th, 2022

Every year, thousands of landfill fires occur, causing millions of dollars in property damage. Thankfully, these refuse infernos have resulted in very few casualties, but the ever-present threat of an out-of-control blaze makes thoughtful action a necessity.

To minimize the risk of property damage and occupational injury, many waste industry professionals have started using thermal imaging cameras (TICs) to detect heat anomalies. By doing so, safety teams are able to see fires before they start.

If you’re curious about how you can use TICs to minimize the risk in your waste management facility, this post is critical. In it, TherCam discusses the causes of landfill fires, the benefits of using TICs to detect hotspots, and the growing landscape of waste disposal.

Landfill Fire Frequency and Damage

Annually, there are a staggering 8,300 landfill fires in the United States. Some of these fires cause upwards of $8 million in damages.

Landfill fires typically fall into two categories: surface and deep-seated (or subsurface) fires. As one might expect, surface fires (one to four feet) occur close to, or on the surface, of landfills. Deep-seated or subsurface fires occur below the surface of a landfill.

Matches, open fire, and hot embers/ashes are the leading causes of surface fires. However, more than 400 landfill fires a year ignite due to spontaneous combustion, which can cause both surface and subsurface heat ignition.

Landfill 2

When waste matter doesn’t have ample coverage, oxygen intrusion occurs. Oxygen intrusion leads to biological degradation and chemical oxidation. Collectively, these exothermic reactions (chemical reactions that release heat) cause spontaneous combustion. Spontaneous combustion occurs when chemical reactions heat solid waste to its ignition temperature (temperature required to start or cause combustion).

Depending on the type of refuse, surface fires can burn deep, causing subsurface fires, and reignite weeks or even months later. Tire fires are perhaps some of the most dangerous as they are exceptionally hot, can burn for weeks, and release pollutants into the air.

Subsurface fires are challenging to extinguish with water. Reason being, if you’re able to get water to it, it also means oxygen is getting to it, which will keep it burning. Therefore, it’s more effective to suppress oxygen to put out the fire. Moreover, oxygen suppression minimizes the risk of nearby waterways being polluted by leachate pools. A leachate is a liquid that drains from landfills and contains significantly high concentrations of hazardous material derived from the substances it passed through.

Landfill fires are of serious concern because of their dangerous fumes, such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and a host of volatile organics (VOCs). Further, fires can damage a landfill’s membrane, the protective layer that prevents contamination from reaching groundwater. In the case of subsurface fires, large voids can form underground, increasing the risk of cave-ins.

The U.S. Fire Administration found that landfill fires are most prevalent in the spring and summer months, when spontaneous combustion is most common. Despite the dangers of spontaneous combustion, most landfill operators still depend on visual signs of fire, such as smoke or steam. However, with modern thermal technology, there is a better, more effective way to protect the environment, equipment, and landfill staff from danger.

Using TICs to Detect and Prevent Landfill Fires

Fires in landfills are a significant problem for waste management professionals, especially when the source of these fires is hidden. However, thermal imaging technology, namely a TIC, can detect hotspots early enough to prevent a catastrophic event.


A TIC is a contactless device that detects infrared energy (heat signature). These devices create an image by converting infrared (IR) radiation into an image that is visible to the human eye.

By integrating TICs into their monitoring systems, landfill operators can measure temperatures underground. By detecting thermal anomalies, oxygen suppression strategies can take place to minimize the chances of spontaneous combustion.

These cameras can be connected to alarms to aid in early evacuation. Further, this early detection also reduces response time by contacting emergency responders before the incident. Ultimately, using TICs can result in less property damage, fewer injuries and casualties, and a safer environment.

The Landscape of Waste Management

The U.S. produces a mind blowing 268 million tons of waste each year. Further, the world generates roughly 2.01 billion tons of waste annually. Waste generation has skyrocketed around the globe in recent decades, and most experts believe it’s not slowing down anytime soon. By 2050, worldwide municipal solid waste generation is expected to increase by roughly 70 percent to 3.4 billion metric tons.

Staying Safe with TICs

Investing in a quality TIC is critical to keeping your team, equipment, and local community safe. Using thermal technology, you can detect fires early and immediately start suppressing oxygen to the hotspot.

Not only will TICs increase your company's level of safety, but they will also boost your bottom line by potentially lowering insurance premiums, reducing equipment damage, and minimizing worker compensation claims.

If you’d like to make your fire inspection process more efficient, visit TherCam’s product page to browse our line of thermal cameras. Moreover, head to our newsroom for the latest in formation on thermal technology and industry insights.