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Trash can fires can lead to tragedy

You never think arson will happen to you—until it does. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, criminals intentionally start approximately 210,300 fires every year, causing 375 deaths, 1,300 injuries and $1 billion in direct property loss.

While arsonists typically target grass and bushes first, they also set fire to trash cans and dumpsters 11% of the time. They view these receptacles as easy targets because they have built-in fuel—sometimes days’ worth of papers, food and other items. And while garbage can fires typically do not cause much harm, they can lead to more damaging fires if you place them close to buildings, or if you put highly flammable waste inside them.

Church Mutual recently has seen a number of claims related to trash can fires. Our risk control experts have acquired valuable knowledge over the years about how to avoid devastating fires. Here, they share some tips:

  1. Keep flammable items out of trash cans and dumpsters, such as:
    • Rechargeable batteries containing heavy metals – instead, recycle by dropping off at a designated collection site, such as a big-box electronics retailer.
    • Flammable and combustible liquids such as gasoline, oil-based paints and kerosene – instead, dispose at a hazardous waste landfill.
    • Household chemicals and cleaners such as bleach, ammonia, pool chemicals, pesticides and paint thinners – instead, dispose at a hazardous waste landfill.
    • Oil-based finishes and rags – store them in an airtight, non-combustible container until you can launder them.
    • Compressed gas cylinders, such as propane and kerosene tanks – either reuse them or find a recycling center that accepts the type of tank you’re disposing.
    • Ashes, coals and used charcoal – leave ashes where they burned for a few days before disposal.


  1. Select the right trash cans.

Only buy trash cans that are labeled “fire resistant.” This means they are made of a material that resists burning, such as steel or concrete. You may want to consider selecting “fire rated” trash cans, which have been tested to withstand heat.

If a trash can will be located in a place where people might smoke, consider a can with a “sand-top” lid, which gives smokers a place to extinguish their cigarettes. 

You may also want to consider buying a can with a lid that locks, which could discourage would-be arsonists or people who want to start a fire to warm themselves. Additionally, you should always lock or restrict access to a dumpster.


  1. Place your trash cans and dumpsters in the right place.

Check your local fire codes to determine distance-from-building requirements in your area. In general, trash cans should be at least five feet away from the building and any other combustible materials to ensure your building will not catch fire if a trash can is burning. Large dumpsters should also be at least five feet from the building, and away from overhanging roof arches or vegetation that could catch fire if the dumpster was on fire.


If you have to move your trash can to the street for pickup, the same rules apply; place it far from anything else that could catch fire.


  1. Keep your property secure.

Consider outdoor lighting, which is an inexpensive way to beef up the security at your facility. You should also keep at least one interior light on. Darkness encourages criminals, and light discourages them.


Consider using security cameras to tighten up your property security. At the very least, have a system in place for locking all doors, windows and trash cans when the last person leaves the facility.


When you need resources on how to protect your building and your people, no one will serve you better than Church Mutual. Visit for more safety tips.