SOMIS — A fire Friday afternoon inside a dumpster containing toxic fumigation pellets forced the evacuation of two businesses and the closure of a mile-long stretch of California 118, authorities said.
The fire began shortly after 2 p.m. inside an industrial-sized dumpster at Griffith Ives, a 50-acre ranch at 3756 Somis Road where flowers are grown and dried, authorities said.
As of 7 p.m., the highway between Donlon and La Cumbre roads had reopened, and firefighters were draining the dumpster to make certain that all of the pellets had been doused with water.
"It was very smoky at one point," said Sandi Wells, a spokeswoman for the Ventura County Fire Department. "We have to be very careful because if ingested, this stuff can be deadly."
Employees at the ranch called authorities after seeing smoke coming from the dumpster and smelling a chemical odor, Wells said. The employees were examined by paramedics but no injuries were reported.
About a dozen people were evacuated from a nearby construction site and a fruit and vegetable stand, authorities said.
About 3 p.m., a shift in the wind forced the brief closure of California 34--Somis Road--when the toxic smoke began wafting in that direction, Wells said. Smoke streamed steadily from the dumpster all afternoon.
A team of nine county and federal hazardous materials experts responded and several donned breathing gear in order to get near enough to the dumpster to test the smoke, Wells said.
The dumpster contained a large pile of eucalyptus trimmings and an unknown quantity of the fumigation pellets, which are used to keep insects away from plant and flower crops.
Although the pellets are composed of a hazardous material, they are not dangerous when stored in canisters and used in small quantities on crops. Toxicity occurs when the pellets are loose and in large quantities, authorities said.
"When the Fumaphos [the brand name of the pellets] is exposed to oxygen it becomes the gas aluminum phosphine and that can be deadly," Wells said.
The fumigant is used at the ranch but employees told authorities they did not know how the pellets got into the dumpster.
Several times while the smoky pile was being doused explosions sounded inside the dumpster, probably the result of a reaction between the water and pellets, Wells said.