Hoping to head off similar mishaps in the future, Supervisor Steve Bennett plans to huddle with other county officials today to determine how to prevent fires such as the one that blanketed much of the region with acrid smoke last week.
Bennett will meet with representatives from the county counsel's office, the planning division and the Fire Department this afternoon to develop prevention strategies. He will report back to the board with the group's findings.
"We want to create a game plan so this doesn't happen again," Bennett said.
The self-ignited fire originated from a compost heap--a mixture of straw and manure--on the PictSweet Mushroom Farm near Ventura on March 11 and burned for a week. The compost is used to fertilize mushrooms.
The fire sent plumes of smelly smoke hundreds of feet into the air, prompting health warnings in western Ventura County that forced schools and senior centers to curb outdoor activities.
The smoldering heap posed a difficult challenge for firefighters because moisture only increased the amount of smoke. After the fifth day, bulldozers were brought in to begin scooping up sections of the 15-feet-deep heap and move the compost to an adjacent field. The compost was spread out and smothered with soil.
County leaders have expressed concern over the amount of compost that had gathered at the mushroom farm. The fertilizer heap was three times as large as normal because an ongoing dispute between the company and its union employees has prompted boycotts, so sales have dipped.
Terrence Gilday of the county's Environmental Health Division suggested that companies should limit the size of compost piles and create fire lines between them.
Bennett agreed that more regulations are needed.
"All businesses live with certain fire code regulations," he said. "After this, it's obvious that mushroom farms ought to have some of those same kinds of rules and regulations."
PictSweet attorney Harry Stang said the company worked closely with the county during the fire and would continue to do so. He said PictSweet also plans to consult with experts on how to prevent future fires.
"We take this very seriously," he said. "We have been very concerned about our neighbors and our employees. This is something we don't want to have happen again."
Meanwhile, spokeswoman Sandi Wells said Monday the county Fire Department hopes to recoup its expenses for battling the blaze. But she said officials have not decided whether to seek reimbursement from PictSweet or to try to get state or federal funds.
She said that the department expects to have a cost estimate for extinguishing the blaze today.
County leaders are unsure what disciplinary action they can take against the mushroom farm. But several officials said they were reviewing state laws, contacting legislators and brainstorming with lawyers.
Despite the odors and public health warnings, PictSweet apparently did not violate any planning or environmental health regulations. The company could face fines for causing a public nuisance, however.
Dick Baldwin, director of the county's Air Pollution Control District, said he is investigating the incident and would know in a few weeks if a fine will be levied against the company.