Decomposing Wood Chips Cause an Austin Playground to Spontaneously Combust

Decomposing wood chips and the summer sun cause an Austin playground to spontaneously combust.

Play structures have often been victimized by shiftless vandals, but rarely do entire playgrounds self-destruct.

In August, police in Arlington, Texas, reviewed surveillance video in the hopes of tracking down the would-be hooligans who ignited a fire that caused an estimated $35,000 in damage to the Anderson Elementary School playground. What they found was a "very unusual occurrence," as Arlington Independent School District Superintendent Mac Bernd mildly described it to the Associated Press.

Sources told the Dallas Morning News that low-quality, decomposing wood chips blanketing the playground and baking in the summer sun spontaneously combusted. "It was like a perfect storm," Arlington deputy fire marshal Keith Ebel told the News.

Though no one was at the playground during the blaze, Bernd announced that wood chips at 35 playgrounds at 20 Arlington schools would be replaced by pea gravel before the start of the school year. The switch cost about $200,000.

Mark Carlston, president and CEO of Calif.-based Forest Wood Fiber Products (which is not on the school district's roster of suppliers), told the News that the blaze likely could have only occurred due to poor-quality chips that either contained some flammable elements or were made up of "green waste."

Officials at the Austin Independent School District - which is in the middle of a three-year process during which pea gravel at its 78 elementary schools will be replaced with wood chips in order to better meet ADA requirements - reacted coolly to the flare-up in Arlington. Paul Bestine, the district's playscape coordinator told the Austin American-Statesman he thought the Arlington district's decision to switch to pea gravel was "hasty."

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