The Fire Burns On
A “dumpster fire” is one of the World Wide Web’s enduring themes. It doesn’t, of course, mean a literal combustion in a container used to house garbage.
For the uninformed, let’s go first to that infinite source of internet wisdom: Urban Dictionary. Its earliest, and highest ranked, definition, is as follows.
1. A complete disaster.
2. Something very difficult that nobody wants to deal with.
This project is a complete dumpster fire.
by FullOn July 10, 2008
But the term itself has to come from somewhere. There’s visual evidence in animated GIF form — an image that has been in e-circulation since long before the tea-sipping lizard and the Crying Basketball Man became The People’s Memes.
Where was this dumpster? Why was it on fire? For the first time, behold: The definitive oral history of the trash receptacle in the dumpster fire GIF.
THE FIRST SPARKS
STEVE JOHNSON, WASTE MANAGEMENT EXPERT: The summer of 2010 was hotter than hell. The trash in those dumpsters just reeked, man. The whole city was just pungent.
The east coast of the United States experienced a brutal heat wave that year, and in Channington, Delaware, broke a maximum temperature record that had stood for over a century.
The mercury hit 105 °F on Wednesday, July 7.
BERNARD WINSLOW, CHANNINGTON MAYOR 2007–11: I remember that well — it was right in the middle of the sanitation strike.
SJ: What could we do? Our trucks were broken down more than they were running. Our compactors were built before the Korean War. And on top of that, we had all those incidents with people leaving live grenades in their trash cans. You want us to work in those conditions, you better raise our pay.
Negotiations stretched on for weeks.
NELLY RODRIGUEZ, OWNER, NELLY’S DINER: With trash pickup guys on strike, our dumpster was overflowing. We’re known for our all-day breakfast menu, and we keep the egg farms in business. A few weeks of that piling up? Those shells smelled BAD.
DWAYNE KELLY, SERVER, NELLY’S DINER: Throw in some old milk, coffee grounds and bacon grease? Nelly had a nightmare on her hands.
NR: We called the city, we called private companies, no one would empty it. We were desperate. Customers could smell it too, it wafted through the restaurant.
The savior came from an unlikely source: county jail.
TERRYN RUSH, CHANNINGTON RESIDENT: I got out a couple weeks earlier, and as soon as I hit the halfway house? Man, I wanted to go back in. It was so damn HOT, and the halfway house didn’t have AC. Jail did.
It was almost serendipitous, really.
TR: I’ve been lighting fires since I was a kid. Loved burning shit. I can’t explain it, it is what it is I guess. But what I did in that alley was a public service.
Walking to her parole officer’s building one afternoon, Rush was all but assaulted by the stench of Rodriguez’s mountain of trash as she took a shortcut through the alley that housed the dumpster.
TR: It was just … baking there. It was fucking disgusting. Why hadn’t they cleared it out?
As she walked back to the bus stop through the alley later that day, the temperature had crested 100 °F. Rush said she could hear the plastic trash bags bubbling and saw more than one rat running around behind it.
JAMIE CHILDS, NEIGHBOR: It was a public health risk. My kids like to fake pedestrian accidents for pocket money on the corner right by that alley all the time that summer. What if they got sick from the trash and couldn’t run their hustle?
Rush decided she had to do something about it, so she came back after dark.
TR: It didn’t take all that much work, really. I had brought a can of lighter fluid, but the moment I struck the match on the side of the dumpster, the fumes just went up. I’d never seen anything burn so fast before.
The combination of methane and a surplus of out-of-date Doritos, which are known to be highly flammable, caught alight instantly.
TR: Oh man, it was wild. I lost my eyebrows in a flash.
JC: I heard, like, a huge whooshing noise. I thought it was a low-flying plane or helicopter or something. Then I smelled burning plastic and knew something was going on.
RAYMOND BARNES, CHANNINGTON FIRE CHIEF: We can’t just have citizens going all vigilante-justice on a huge pile of trash. It’s not safe.
TR: I’m just glad my eyebrows mostly grew back before I had to go back to jail. I would have caught hell.
The dumpster burned for 11 hours before the trash pile finally subsided. A news crew from local station WATV broadcast the blaze live through the morning. The animated GIF is cribbed from WATV’s footage.
NR: You know what’s funny? We kinda got used to the smell. Fifty tons of trash baking outside your back door, and eventually you can’t even smell it.
Rush was sentenced to four years in jail for what she maintains was a civil service.
TR: For a while I got out again, people still recognized me and would wave in the street. I’m the Girl Who Set The Dumpster On Fire. Pretty weird, right?
But while local celebrity fades, some images endure. And just ask anyone who’s had their 15 minutes of internet fame: once you’re immortalized in meme or GIF form, you may just last forever.
Flame on, dumpster.