Debris Fire Burns Unchecked in Fresno

Times Staff Writer

A smoldering fire in a giant woodpile continued to burn stubbornly Friday on the outskirts of this city as many residents already choking on a winter of foul air stayed indoors or wheezed their way to the doctor's office.

Over the past week -- since the football field-sized woodpile combusted spontaneously and began its slow, smoky burn -- the air in Fresno has turned so hazardous that schools have canceled basketball games and kept all students indoors.

"We've have 81,000 students inside for the past four days and they're getting a little stir crazy," said Jill Marmolejo of the Fresno Unified School District, the state's fourth-largest. "We've canceled basketball games, wrestling, soccer, baseball practice and track. Kids are missing school because of respiratory illnesses."

Winter is never a time for pleasant air in the San Joaquin Valley, as thick blankets of fog trap particles of smoke and dust for weeks at a time. Small particles from chimney fires and construction sites can lodge deep in the lungs and have been linked to heart disease and cancer.

The woodpile fire at a Fresno recycling center could not have come at a worse time. A lid of warm air, winter's dreaded inversion layer, had hunkered down and was going nowhere when the 25-foot-tall pile of construction debris, wood and grass clippings at the recycling center ignited on its own.

City firefighters tried dousing it with water and mistakenly thought they had extinguished it last Saturday. But the water from their hoses acted as a form of fuel, creating more moisture and heat in the pile.

The result was an even more daunting blaze. As monitoring stations began recording two and three times the healthy limit for particulate pollution in town, city officials appealed for help.

On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency, the state Office of Emergency Services and the state Integrated Waste Management Board joined the effort. More than $300,000 in state and federal aid has been pledged to put out the blaze.

The agencies expect to wade into the pile this weekend with huge earth-moving equipment and firefighters in special gear, pulling apart the debris chunk by chunk and dousing it with retardant foam.

"This is a big pile with a lot of things going on inside it," said federal EPA spokesman Mark Merchant. "We're going to put in any amount of money needed to stop this fire. This is a unified effort with the state and the city."

The dirty, dangerous task could take another week or 10 days.

"It's not until we get in there and start separating the pile that we'll know the material that's burning and the depth of the fire," said Eric Lamoureux of the state's Office of Emergency Services. "Until we do that, it's hard to say how long this thing will burn."

Dr. Malik Baz runs an allergy and asthma clinic eight miles north of the woodpile and, as soon as he heard about the fire, he braced for a rush of patients. That rush began Thursday, with children and older people complaining of burning throats and lungs.

"We're putting them on inhalers and giving them steroids," Baz said. "It's bad out there. You can smell it. We're telling people to stay indoors and, if they can afford it, take a trip to the coast or go skiing in the mountains. Get out of town and stay out of town until the fire is out."

State and federal regulators have begun testing debris from the site and particles in the nearby air, looking for possible toxins. School officials say they welcome the Monday holiday. If the inversion layer lifts and the smoke from the fire eases, they expect students to resume gym and sports activities Tuesday.

In the meantime, city officials are contemplating what action, if any, to take against the owner of the site, Archie Crippen Excavation.

Crippen's property, according to the Fresno Bee, was annexed to the city in the mid-1980s and was supposed to operate as a recycling center.

In the early 1990s, a city inspector noted that the debris pile contained material not allowed under Crippen's work permit, but it is unclear if the city issued a citation.

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