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Fire crews start work to extinguish Iqaluit's 'dumpcano'

IQALUIT, Nunavut - Fire crews are getting ready to start pumping water on a fire in the Iqaluit city dump that has been smouldering since May.

"We're trying to set up and trying to put water onto this thing," fire chief Luc Grandmaison said Wednesday.

"We're putting all the equipment together and (hope to) be able to pump from the sea."

The fire, known locally as the "dumpcano," has been burning deep within a massive pile of garbage.

The combustion is centred somewhere within untold numbers of household garbage bags in a section of the dump about the size of a football field and up to four storeys deep.

There are no flames. But Grandmaison has said the subsurface heat reaches up to 2,000 C.

The heart of the blaze is too deep for firehoses to reach. The pile of garbage is too unstable to attack with backhoes or other equipment.

Because extinguishing the fire is so difficult and dangerous, the city had initially planned to let itself burn out.

But after fumes from the fire closed schools for several days and prompted recurring health warnings, the city brought in a fire-suppression consultant to advise them on how to snuff it out.

British Columbia-based Anthony Sperling proposed building a large pond walled by dirt and garbage and filled with seawater. High-extension excavators would take load after load of burning waste and dunk it in the pool to extinguish it. The waste would then be drained, flattened and stored in a new area.

Water from the quenching pond would be pumped onto the burning section of the dump to quell the flames expected to leap up as shovels bit in. Specialized industrial firefighting crews would have to wear respirators and splash suits to protect themselves from contaminated water.

Putting out the fire is expected to take three weeks and cost $2.4 million. A fire suppression company from Alberta has been hired to help out.

The problem stems from the fact that Iqaluit's dump was built in 1995 and was intended to be used for five years. As the city grew and garbage kept arriving, it was piled higher and higher in steeper and steeper stacks.

It's the dump's fourth fire since mid-December. In 2010, a blaze took six weeks to put out.

Iqaluit's situation isn't unique in Nunavut — or new.

In 2001, Nunavut mayors pleaded with Ottawa for extra money to deal with dangerous dumps and lagoons. A 2004 report by the Conference Board of Canada made similar points, as did a 2010 consultant's study for Environment Canada.

A 2011 estimate put the cost of modernizing all 25 municipal dumps in Nunavut at between $320 million and $500 million.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton.

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