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Blaze at Town of Hempstead waste transfer station in Merrick caused by ‘sparked combustibles’

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A fire broke out inside a homeowners’ disposal area at the Town of Hempstead’s waste transfer station in Merrick, near the entrance to the Norman J. Levy Park and Preserve, at around 7:45 a.m. on Sunday. Firefighters were on the scene within minutes, dousing the blaze from pumper trucks.

According to town spokesman Mike Fricchione, the fire was extinguished by 10 a.m. and was limited to the unloading area. No injuries were reported, and no equipment was damaged.

Officials from the Nassau County fire marshal’s office investigated the scene on Monday. Investigation Division Supervisor James Hickman told the Herald Life that the fire had been caused by a payloader that had come in contact with an unknown substance, which sparked and ignited combustible materials among the commercial trash.

“These payloaders have a large bucket on the front to move debris around,” Hickman explained, “and they scrape along the floor moving heavy stuff, which can cause a series of sparks that can ignite combustibles. We don’t know what’s in the trash a lot of the time.”

Fricchione said that a homeowner might have mistakenly disposed of something flammable. A structural engineer deemed the building safe, and town employees are in the process of completing a thorough cleanup.

The Merrick Fire Department was alerted to the fire at 7:50 a.m., according to former Chief Ron Luparello. As he drove toward it, he recalled, Merrick Road was covered in “very dense smoke.”

Crews from the North Merrick, Bellmore and Freeport fire departments — under the command of Merrick’s 1st assistant chief, Paul Scoleri — also responded to the scene, as well as Bellmore-Merrick EMS workers.

Luparello said that crews doused the flames with streams of water from deck guns and ladder trucks, and that a town sanitation worker operated a bulldozer to move debris around the area so the water could hit the base of the fire.

“Initially we tried to connect to one of the fire hydrants in the back of the station, but there was low water pressure,” Luparello said. “We ended up placing other engines out on the main street, and created a water relay to pump water from hydrants [there] through thousands of feet of hose to get to the transfer station.”

In a statement to the Herald Life, NYAW Senior Production Manager Richard Kern said initial fire units connected to fire hydrants that are owned and maintained by the town, which are connected to a piping system also owned and maintained by the town.

"The on-site flow limitations that the . . . units experienced were due to issues within the Town’s transfer facility’s piping and hydrant system," Kern said. "NYAW has offered to work with the Merrick Fire Department and set up a meeting with the Town of Hempstead transfer facility staff to review this incident as well as the piping system to help them identify issues and recommend improvements."

This wasn’t the first time firefighters have extinguished a blaze at the transfer station, Luparello said, adding that he had responded to calls there at least four times over the past three years. Hickman said it is typical for fires to erupt at waste transfer stations, and that the town has misters and hose lines hooked up in the disposal areas to keep fires to a minimum.

At the transfer station, garbage is unloaded from local neighborhoods onto tractor-trailers for transfer to the Covanta Hempstead incinerator in Westbury.

In a statement to the Herald Life, Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen said, “I am grateful to the firefighters of the Merrick Fire Department, North Merrick Fire Department and Bellmore Fire Department for swiftly responding.”