Fire at recycling facility in the Menomonee Valley finally put out
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Fire at recycling facility in the Menomonee Valley finally put out

Aug 06, 2023

Milwaukee and Wauwatosa fire crews fought a blaze for almost 24 hours beginning Wednesday afternoon at a recycling plant in the Menomonee Valley, which has received frequent visits from the fire department over the years, Fire Chief Aaron Lipski said.

Lipski said it is a possibility the cause of the fire may never be known, however, the fire chief did mention that in Milwaukee, and across the country, lithium-ion batteries have been a common source of fires.

"I can tell you that lithium-ion batteries are absolutely problematic right now, the regulatory situation has not been regulated to the degree that they're safe," Lipski said on Thursday. "They're not being used appropriately, they're not being charged appropriately, and once they experience what is called thermal runaway, there is very little to be done."

The initial alarm sounded at 1:48 p.m. Wednesday at the Materials Recovery Facility, 1401 W. Mount Vernon Ave., Lipski said, and callers later reported that a machine was on fire inside the building.

Brian DeNeve, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, said the fire started in a paper storage bunker, a holding bin where the sorted grade of material accumulates prior to be baled and shipped out.

A supplemental fire suppression system was activated, DeNeve said. But at a news conference Wednesday outside the facility, Lipski said that this fire started in an area that was not protected by the suppression system.

All employees were evacuated and no injuries have been reported, Lipski said.

It is an "extremely deep-seated fire," Lipski said on Wednesday, adding crews needed to "disassemble" the outer structure to attack the fire.

Most of what was burning is equipment and recyclables, including plastics and rubbers, and Lipski said the Hazardous Materials Team would take air samplings just west of the facility to ensure safety. He recommended people in buildings near the Valley close their windows.

Lipski said roughly 75 firefighters from both the Milwaukee Fire Department and Wauwatosa Fire Department helped put out the blaze.

Lipski said there is a "long and storied history" of fires at the facility, including a 2020 fire. Due to the frequency of visits the department worked with the city to place fire suppressant measures inside the facility, but the system didn't contain the blaze. The heat activated the building's main sprinkler system as well, DeNeve said.

DeNeve acknowledged that where recycling is managed may need to be addressed due to the damage, saying "(DPW) is investigating options where to send recyclable materials if the MRF is not an option."

"Once the fire is contained and the building is given an all clear, our operator will assess the full extent of the damage and its expected impact on the operations," DeNeve said.

Residents should continue with their normal practice of recycling and schedule of cart collection, DeNeve said.

ReCommunity Recycling is a private company that handles recycling for the City of Milwaukee and 25 communities in Waukesha County at the Materials Recovery Facility, according to DPW. The facility began recent operations in 2015 after the city retrofitted the facility with new equipment.

Due to the retrofitting, recycling is handled within the city again as it was prior to 2011. Between 2011 and 2015, recycling was handled at the Waste Management facility in Germantown.

In a 2021 fire at the nearby Alter Metal Recycling, smoke billowed over the Mitchell Park Domes and into American Family Field during a Brewers game.