Yesterday afternoon, Beverly firefighters responded to three separate reports of mulch fires: on Brimbal Avenue, Cabot Street and near the Shaw's supermarket in North Beverly.
Yesterday's calls were all too familiar to North Shore fire departments, which have responded to mulch fires almost daily in the last few weeks. Two building fires — a funeral home in Danvers and a house in Beverly — were started this week by cigarettes tossed into bark mulch, fire officials said.
In the wake of this spring's frequent mulch flare-ups, State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan is working to tighten regulations on the use, storage and manufacture of mulch.
The Massachusetts Board of Fire Prevention Regulations will have a public hearing on the new regulations in June before they are adopted, said Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office.
This spring's extremely dry conditions have had officials issuing fire warnings for weeks. It's proved a dangerous combination, as homeowners are sprucing up landscaping for the season and laying mulch, Mieth said.
"We have had dozens of fires this week all across the state," she said. "Bark mulch is a very combustible product. (With) the way mulch is laid out, a cigarette can get under mulch and smolder for a long time and cause a fire."
The fire marshal recommends keeping mulch at a distance from buildings, and the new regulations will require an 18-inch barrier for commercial buildings and residences with more than six units.
Also, restrictions would be placed on facilities that store and manufacture mulch, such as the J. D. Raymond site in Peabody, which has had several fires in recent years. If approved, the regulations would set limits on the size of mulch piles at a facility and require them to be at least 30 feet apart and set back from other buildings and property lines.
In February, the city of Peabody issued a cease-and-desist order for the J. D. Raymond site after a fire spewed heavy smoke and slowed traffic on Interstate 95 and Routes 1 and 128. The property also had a difficult fire in June 2010 that sent four firefighters to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
This week's fires in Beverly and Danvers were both caused by cigarettes that had been flicked into bark mulch near the building. The fires caused a good amount of damage, but no injuries.
A cigarette tossed into mulch was also the cause of a 2008 fire at The Highlands at Dearborn apartment complex, which overlooks Route 128 in Peabody. The blaze destroyed a building, caused more than $4 million in damage and displaced more than 700 people.
In 2010, Massachusetts had 198 fires that started outside in mulch-type material and spread to a structure.
Mieth urged residents to use caution, and common sense, in disposing of smoking materials. Put cigarettes in a metal receptacle — a sand-filled coffee can works well — instead of flicking them on the ground. Don't throw cigarettes out car windows, an act that is punishable by fine.
"We usually have brush fire season, followed by mulch fire season," she said. "We have just been having so many outdoor fires. Give our firefighters a break; be careful with smoking materials."
Staff writer Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.