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Heap of burning mulch chokes Texas town

Efforts to extinguish the fire begin after weeks of delay. Children and the elderly stay indoors.

January 15, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HELOTES, TEXAS — From a distance, the 70-foot-high stack looks like a volcano in the mist. Up close, it's nothing more than a smoldering mountain of densely packed mulch, a local eyesore that caught fire here Christmas Day and is still burning.

For weeks, local and state officials bickered over who would pay to put out the flames. Residents, fed up with the smoke and ash, appeared at a City Council meeting in gas masks to protest the delay. Schools offered to transfer students, and health officials advised the elderly to stay indoors.

In the end, the state agreed to pay private contractors $1.7 million to extinguish the fire, rejecting mulch pile owner Henry Zumwalt's plan to use his own workers and equipment.

The job will take at least two weeks to complete.

In the meantime, there's still the smoke. It seeps through cracks in windows and doors, and settles into hair, clothes and furniture. Children have been kept indoors, dogs put in kennels. Some residents wear a respirator to do yardwork, and the women of the Garden Club spent their last meeting comparing upper respiratory problems.

"The smoke just penetrates you," said Bertha Farias, rubbing her throat. "I think it's getting worse. We go to bed at night hoping we'll wake up in the morning."

Monitors from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have rated the air "dangerous" to "very dangerous," and residents with asthma and other breathing problems have been urged to leave until the smoke clears.

Most people have remained in town, unwilling or unable to put their lives on hold.

"The whole inside of my house smells like smoke. You go outside and it smells like smoke. You can't get away from it. It's horrible," resident Kim Norman said.

In her backyard, Norman runs a finger over patio furniture covered with a white powder. "Look at this. There's ash and soot flying everywhere, and this is what we're breathing."

Norman lives in a neighborhood across a road from the slow-burning mulch. On one side of the blackened field, state contractors last week dug a trench to make room for a new water line. Over the weekend, four machines were to start shooting millions of gallons of water onto the fire, environmental commission spokesman Terry Clawson said.

As the fire is extinguished, tearing machines will begin to pull apart the 400-foot-wide mountain. Because the mulch sits above an aquifer that supplies water to the region, chemicals that might have helped the water penetrate the wood will not be added.

Schools will be closed Tuesday because administrators are concerned that the scooping and soaking may kick up even more ash and smoke, Mayor Jon Allen said.

"This has been an absolute nightmare," Allen said. "We didn't have the resources to fight that fire. It was a monumental task, and it took a lot of trying to convince the state that they needed to act."

Authorities are investigating the fire as a case of arson, Allen said.

The giant mulch pile comes from trees cut down to make room for new housing developments near Helotes (pop. 6,200), northwest of fast-growing San Antonio.

For 14 years the pile has been getting "bigger and bigger and bigger, climbing higher into the sky," resident Terry Clark said. Residents complained to the city but were told that Zumwalt was complying with state law, he said.

"It's ridiculous; they should have gotten rid of that thing years ago," Clark said. "Now they're going to have to truck that mess out of there, and it's really densely packed. I don't think they realize how much is there."

Rudy Vela, a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent, and his wife, Irma, drove past in their pickup, back from dinner in a nearby town. Already their eyes were watering.

"The waitress said, 'Are you from Helotes? You smell like smoke.' It's embarrassing," Irma Vela said.

Down the street, 7-year-old Darcy Loessberg said recess was held indoors when it got too smoky at school, and that was fine with her. "It stinks outside," she said.

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