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California and the West

Smoldering Fire Has Become a Routine Hindrance to Coastal Commuters

Smoke: 'Bog fog' from two-month blaze on Vandenberg Air Force Base often blocks PCH route.

November 26, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE — Through the night, the fire that just won't go away smolders in a swamp not far from where satellites and missiles soar into space.

And that means there's a good chance Sheryl Fitt of Santa Maria will be late, yet again, for her social worker's job in Lompoc.

Because on some mornings a cloud of foul-smelling smoke mixes with a marine layer and stretches thick and opaque, like cotton, over Pacific Coast Highway.

"It's a routine part of the day," said Officer Reggie Julius of the California Highway Patrol office in Santa Maria. "It rolls in so quick, we just have to shut the highway right down."

That means a flood of commuters call the CHP every morning at 6 a.m. with just one question: Is today a "bog fog" day?

The smoke arrived with the so-called Harris fire, which swiftly consumed 9,700 acres in this Central Coast area in mid-September and left a charred trail. It was only several days later that officials noticed that the Barka Slough on the air force base was still smoking.

Two months later, it still is.

Base firefighters tried to tackle it by running water cannons around the clock, but spots kept blazing back up. They hired a contractor to rig up an irrigation system. But after spraying 124 million gallons of water--enough to supply 1,856 people for a year--they realized it could take a long time to douse.

So now they're setting their sights on a third option: Let the thing dry, and then bulldoze it right out of the ground. Base officials are seeking environmental permits to excavate the burning peat, soak it with water and then return it--fully extinguished--to its place.

"It was an adventure at the outset," said Vandenberg Assistant Fire Chief Mark Farias. "Then, it became the wound that just won't heal."

This is the fire that, depending on whom you ask--and the direction of the wind--smells like nickel cigars, rotting vegetables or a burning cow pie.

This is the fire that the 150,000 residents of the surrounding towns and the 19,000 living or working on the base would forget if it weren't so frustrating. And dangerous, too: The fog has been blamed for one death there. The driver of a car died after his vehicle struck a slow moving truck near Buellton.

The fire is buried underground for one thing, in 65 acres of peat bog that base officials didn't even really know existed until it began burning.

Fire officials sought out East Coast experts, and found advice from as far afield as Russia and Ireland. And they discovered they've got a special case on their hands.

For one, it's huge: acres and acres of mucky decaying leaves and twigs, smoldering.

Then, there's its proximity to so many people trying to go about their daily lives.

Plus, their bog has the added challenge of underground layers of hard-to-saturate clay.

Even worse, it's pretty dry, because wells have drained slough water for years for the base's use--inviting a fire to hang out a while.

"I'm sure people are asking, 'When is [it] going to go out?' " Farias said. "If people were closer to ground zero, they'd realize the progress. It's a painting that's getting done."

So, until then, Sheryl Fitt's commute from her Santa Maria home to Lompoc will remain a trial. On some days--she never knows exactly when until she sees the signs--she gets to detour through the Harris Grade on a winding, one-lane mountain road.

"It's bumper to bumper," she said. "But the boss is usually behind me. So, oh, well."

She and her friend Sheila McMonigal figure they're in it for the long haul.

"One of my co-workers says: 'It's the military. Who knows how long it will be?,' " said McMonigal, of Lompoc.

At Vandenberg Middle School, right outside the base's main gate, secretary Susie Thomas is thankful for the invention of the cell phone, because the calls start rolling in from teachers stuck on the Harris Grade to let her know that a lot of the staff may be arriving late.

Though the smell has died down, it could return as the base stops to let things dry out.

"Some mornings you can really smell it," said Dena Earing of Orcutt, who gets an earful from commuters at her gas station job. "It's like a wet campfire. . . . We're pretty much used to it now."

According to the Santa Barbara County Air Control District, the fire hasn't been responsible for health problems beyond its first very smoky week.

Base firefighters say they're intent on getting rid of the fire, no matter how long it takes.

"It's there. It's not going anywhere," Farias said. "I think it will eventually go out. There's only so much fuel to burn. . . . Defeat is not an option."

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