Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above,  in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists.
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above, in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists.
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above,  in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists.
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above, in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists.
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above,  in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists. 
Picture: BURKHARD SCHLOSSER
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above, in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists. Picture: BURKHARD SCHLOSSER
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above,  in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists.
Smoke billows from the municipal landfill site, above, in Pietermaritzburg yesterday. The thick smoke led to some nearby schools closing and caused visibility problems for motorists.
Durban - Toxic smoke spread over large parts of Pietermaritzburg yesterday as city firefighters battled to extinguish one of the biggest blazes at the municipal dump in Scottsville.

Even a joint effort from firefighters of Msunduzi, uMgungundlovu District and Working on Fire was not enough to contain it.

The fire, which has been described as the biggest experienced at the municipal landfill in recent years, has released toxic fumes that will see the city’s pollution levels shoot up.

At least five schools closed for the day yesterday, while some schools advised parents to fetch their children and keep them at home.

Firefighters, who had been working on the site since Friday, split themselves into teams across the dump-site, using graders to locate the source of the fire.

While the cause remained unknown, firefighters yesterday speculated on what could be behind the incident.

One firefighter, who asked not to be named, said there were two possible causes.

“History has shown that the fire can spread when some of the waste pickers who live at the dump light up to warm themselves. However, the weather’s been extremely hot in Pietermaritzburg so I doubt it was caused by that.

“The most probable cause of this large fire is spontaneous combustion. Due to all the chemicals found at this dump and the piles of waste combined with the unbearable heat we’ve been experiencing over the last few days, the fire would have started underneath the waste,” the firefighter said.

Subsurface spontaneous fires were considered the most dangerous, and difficult to detect and extinguish.

Residents living as far away as Hilton complained about toxic gases that filled the air since Sunday, when the fire worsened.

Resident Gail Starr said she woke up on Saturday morning with a tight chest and headache.

“When I walked outside, I immediately knew why. It’s Monday afternoon 12.47pm and there’s no relief in sight. The kids have been sent home from school. I still have a headache and you can just smell how toxic this smoke is,” she said.

Nadine Franzsen said although the fire reached them on Saturday, the smoke was “out of hand” on Sunday and yesterday.

“It looked like a huge fire because the smoke was visible on the highway coming into Pietermaritzburg from far away. I don’t understand how this is allowed to happen on a regular basis for days on end,” Franzsen said.

GroundWork environmental health campaigner Rico Euripidou said the fire was the “single, worst scenario for public health”.

Euripidou said that open burning of waste gave rise to and released a very harmful class of chemicals called dioxins and furans.

“These last a long time in the environment and have toxic compounds that stay in the food chain and environment for a long time,” he said.

Euripidou said the pollutant most associated with severe health impact from air pollution was particulate matter of the size 2.5micron, commonly known as PM2.5.

“This is not being monitored in Pietermaritzburg and that’s a problem because PM2.5 penetrates the deepest into our lungs and can travel into our bloodstream and be distributed to our organs, causing health impacts like heart disease. Air pollution is also known to cause people to die from lung cancer, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, strokes and lower respiratory infection.”

Municipal spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said that a meeting was held by the municipality’s senior management and Department of Environmental Affairs to come up with a sustainable plan for the site.

“The municipality has deployed a manager for the landfill site who’ll be dealing with all the operations and a plan for the sustainability of the area. We’re in the process of hiring two bulldozers for the site.

“Traffic control will be monitoring both north and southbound lanes of the N3 for the smoke to ensure traffic safety. There’s 24-hour private security on site, which is guarding the area,” she said.

Speaking after visiting the landfill, MEC for Environmental Affairs Nomusa Dube-Ncube said the government’s mission was to ensure that they assisted residents to avoid smoke inhalation.

“Over the next few days, we’ll be consulting with relevant authorities to ascertain exactly how to penalise those found to be in breach with environmental laws.

“It cannot be business as usual.”

She said a comprehensive action plan had already been developed to mobilise and deploy more resources from other municipalities.

The Mercury