WGFC Assists Avondale on Hay Bales Fire
September 13, 2022

The Avondale Fire Company was dispatched for a large haybales fire just after 9pm on Sunday evening, an incident that ultimately involved fire companies from two states, and stretched almost until dawn.

The West Grove Fire Company was called to assist Avondale at 921pm with a request for Tanker 22. The WGFC responded with Tanker 22 and Engines 22-1 and 22-3. The WGFC was part of additional units requested to assist Station 23, as they had found fire in a large field where hay and straw bales were being stored. The WGFC was requested, along with tankers from Po-Mar-Lin (Unionville) 36, and Hockessin 19, and, later Cochranville 27 and Christiana 52 of Lancaster County. The fire scene was located at the intersection of Ellicott and Starr Roads in New Garden Township.

The Avondale area is home to a concentration of mushroom growing operations. Mushrooms are grown in compost, which is made from hay and straw. Hay and straw is typically delivered to compost-making operations in large bales, each of which measures 4'X3'x10' in size, and can weigh from 1500-2000 pounds each. The large bales are packed at high pressure to maximize the hay and straw content, and -- because they are stored outdoors -- are often wet and even heavier as a result. Compost farming operations often store very large quantities of hay and straw bales in large piles, often stocked five or six bales high, with piles as large as 10-20 bales wide, and 50 bales in length.

When such pressure packed bales catch on fire, they are extremely difficult to extinguish because of the internal pressure. To put such a fire out requires breaking apart each burning bale to separate the material and then watering it down. This is a nearly impossible project, involving considerable machinery and enormous quantities of water. Over the years, experienced firefighters have learned the best method to respond to these incidents is to isolate the burning material from the hay and straw that can be saved, and then let the resulting pile burn itself off.

In this incident on Sunday, firefighters set up a water supply and used handlines to isolate the burning material to keep the fire from spreading, and create a safe working area for the heavy equipment to relocate hundreds of large bales away from the fire to save the hay and straw inventory. Large loaders, carrying 2-3 bales each worked over five hours to move hundreds of 1+ ton bales away from the burning material. During that time, firefighters from Avondale, West Grove, Hockessin, Po-Mar-Lin, Cochranville and Christiana of Lancaster County protected farm workers and kept the fire at bay until the hay and straw piles could be safely moved.

WGFC Engine 22-1 provided a water supply by setting up a tanker fill site at a hydrant on Starr Road. Tankers continuously shuttled water in a loop to the fire scene, with water pumped by tanker into Tanker 23 which operated as a nurse on the scene (a nurse tanker is a kind of holding tank for the incident). Tanker 23 then fed Engine 23-1 which supplied multiple hand lines used on the fire ground. The tanker shuttle and fire operation remained in place from about 9pm until nearly 4am Sunday morning. Tens of thousands of gallons of water was utilized in this incident.

Starr Road remains closed in the area. After the fire fighting operation ceased, the company operating the farm took over responsibility to monitor the remaining burning material until the fire ultimately is extinguished.

Units: Tanker 22, Engine 22-1, Engine 22-3
Mutual Aid: Avondale 23-1, 23-2, Tanker 23, Ambulance 23; Hockessin Tanker 19; Po-Mar-Lin Tanker 36 and Brush 36; Cochranville Engine 27-1; Christiana Engine 52-1.