Dispatch From a Fire

Texas Town Fumes as Mulch Mountain Burns On

Firefighters in Helotes, Tex., use machinery to tear apart an eight-story-high mulch pile that has burned for two months, casting a pall of smoke over the town, while environmental officials debated the best way to fight it.
Firefighters in Helotes, Tex., use machinery to tear apart an eight-story-high mulch pile that has burned for two months, casting a pall of smoke over the town, while environmental officials debated the best way to fight it. (By Matthew C. Wright -- The Washington Post)
By Matthew C. Wright
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

HELOTES, Tex. -- The smoke comes and goes with the breeze, but some days it blankets Deanna Rodriguez's neighborhood, covering cars in grimy ash and seeping inside homes. Some days, when the wind blows from the south, her house becomes almost uninhabitable.

"We can get the rugs cleaned, the furniture cleaned. My main concern is the kids," she said of her three children. "They're breathing that in."

Rodriguez's neighborhood sits only a few hundred yards from a giant mulch fire that has burned, day and night, in a pasture in this small town west of San Antonio since just after Christmas.

No one knows what caused the fire at the H.L. Zumwalt Tree Disposal's recycling facility eight weeks ago. But, the result is a smoldering pile of ash eight stories tall and hundreds of feet long that gives healthy adults and children headaches, irritated eyes, sore throats and other allergy-like symptoms, and threatens the frail even more.

For weeks, residents say, students at two elementary schools within three miles of the fire have rarely been able to go outside for recess because of smoke. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality monitors the air and, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, advises residents when to stay indoors. But some residents, such as Randy Mangum, simply leave their homes when the wind shifts the wrong way.

More than once, Mangum and his family have had to put their dogs in a kennel and stay in a hotel for several nights, at their own expense. Countless other residents have stayed with relatives or friends outside Helotes.

"You get a little more aggravated as time goes on," said Mangum, echoing a nearly universal sense of frustration around town.

In general, the smoke presents a serious threat only to people with severe, preexisting medical conditions, many of whom the county is putting up in hotels in San Antonio at an estimated final cost of $270,000.

Officials predict it will take at least three more weeks to extinguish the fire. Progress has been slow because the environmental officials in charge of putting out the fire have had to balance air-quality concerns in Helotes with protecting the sole water source for 1.8 million people in the region.

"The basic fact is, it's over the Edwards Aquifer," said Terry Clawson, a spokesman for the environmental commission. Because officials involved in the negotiations were "very, very concerned" with protecting the aquifer, Clawson said, it "took a while before everyone could come to an agreement" on how to fight the fire. Helotes residents say they understand the concern for the aquifer, but many still bristle at what they perceive as a lack of urgency among environmental officials.

For example, an initial push in January to extinguish the fire with massive amounts of water was stopped when private wells nearby showed signs of smoke contamination, indicating that polluted runoff could be flowing into the aquifer.

It took officials weeks to resolve a dispute between the state and the San Antonio Water Authority, and agree on a new plan. That plan, which called for heavy equipment to tear apart the pile and push it in pieces into a giant, clay-lined pit filled with water, was implemented last week. And if increased well testing shows signs of new pollution, it will be back to the negotiating table.


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