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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Health Officials Hold Their Breath Over Compost Fire

March 14, 2001|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A smoldering compost heap near Ventura that may burn for weeks prompted warnings Tuesday for people with breathing problems to stay indoors, as billowing, foul-smelling smoke spread into populated areas.

The three-acre fire, ignited in mounds of straw and horse manure at PictSweet Mushroom Farm, sent large clouds of acrid smoke across parts of Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Ventura and Camarillo.

Public health officials warned schools to cancel some outdoor activities, while neighbors in the path of the smoke dreaded more stench and possible health problems.

Ventura County firefighters, who said battling the fire will be difficult, were experimenting Tuesday with ways of extinguishing the fire quickly.

"It's a mess," County Fire Chief Bob Roper said. "It's not a large incident itself, but it is affecting the air quality, and that's what makes it large-scale."

Ester Tice, who lives in a north Oxnard neighborhood in the path of the smoke, said: "I've had a headache since yesterday. If I didn't have to go out, I'd just stay in my house. There's got to be something they can do to get rid of it."

Officials are seeking the least-intrusive method of dousing the fire. If it weren't in a populated area, such a fire typically would be allowed to burn itself out.

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Extinguishing the fire is particularly troublesome because it is in a sensitive area, next to the Santa Clara River and strawberry fields.

Throughout the day, regulators from such agencies as the county public health department, Air Pollution Control District and county sanitation were meeting to discuss ways to fight the problem while causing the least damage to public health and the ecosystem.

For instance, if firefighters douse the flames with water, it could send noxious runoff into the river, harming threatened fish such as steelhead trout and the tidewater goby, said Morgan Wehtje, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Fish and Game.

Officials were planning to experiment with several methods of stopping the fire, including spreading the compost with a bulldozer, attempting to accelerate the fire in hopes it would burn itself out, and spraying it down with water and creating channels to avoid sensitive areas.

Adding to the challenge is that the compressed straw and manure smolder rather than ignite because the pile is not getting much oxygen, said Roper, who compared the fire to a massive peat bog fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base that has smoldered for six months. Smoke from that blaze forced the periodic closure of the Ventura Freeway.

But the local fire, which is significantly smaller, won't take nearly as long to fight, he said.

"We know it will take more than one day," Roper said. "But I won't say it will go on a month."

Oxnard School District officials were responding to the fire as they would to a heavy smog day, asking physical education teachers to conduct classes indoors, and canceling outdoor after-school activities, Supt. Richard Duarte said.

County health officials are recommending that people in areas affected by the smoke avoid strenuous outdoor activity. They say the smoke can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and may make breathing difficult, particular for those with asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis or other respiratory diseases.

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"The main thing I'm trying to sell is for people to be honest about their health," county Public Health Officer Robert Levin said. "People with any chronic lung condition need to recognize if they're having any kind of symptoms and get out of the area."

Dick Baldwin, air pollution district director, said the smoke has not yet been tested but that officials are primarily concerned about particulate matter--windblown dust that those with abnormal lungs have a hard time clearing.

The fire began Sunday evening, possibly by spontaneous combustion within the steamy pile of compost. Workers initially tried to put out the fire with a garden hose, said Keros Brown, who oversees the operation. He said the mixture of wet and dry straw exacerbated the problem, because as soon as one portion was doused, another flared up.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire was a huge smoky heap--a quarter-mile long, 12 feet high and 300 yards wide--capped by tiny flames. The smoke began spreading heavily late Tuesday morning, because of a breeze that came off the ocean, Roper said.

Officials expected the same forecast for today, and said an aerial view showed the smoke appeared to be lessening.

The heap, a large pile of used straw from Santa Anita and Hollywood Park racetracks, was being composted as soil for growing mushrooms, Brown said. He said the fire was the first in one of the company's compost heaps since 1986.

At least one Oxnard neighbor said she didn't mind the smell of the smoke so much but wouldn't welcome it hanging around.

"It's not as bad as the fresh fertilizer," said Janice Gibson, who described her neighborhood as being "right in the airflow" of the mushroom farm. "But this doesn't sound good at all."

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FYI

A fire smoldering in a giant compost heap near Ventura is producing smoke that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Public health officials advise that children in Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo curtail outdoor physical activity and warn people with respiratory illnesses or heart disease to consult a doctor if symptoms worsen. Officials say the fire may continue for weeks. People with concerns can call the Ventura County Public Health Department's 24-hour hotline at 339-9750 or 339-9151.

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