Officials: No HazMat situation at Whitethorn fire; Briceland Thorn Road back open, school buses are running normally

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Thadeus Greenson

The Times-Standard

Officials said Friday that no hazardous materials were found at the scene of a Whitethorn Dumpster fire that burned on and off for nearly 20 hours Wednesday night and through most of Thursday.

Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Larry Lancaster of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services said environmental health specialists inspected the site thoroughly on Friday.

”They didn’t see anything that indicated any hazardous materials influence,” Lancaster said, adding that Friday’s site visit was made in an abundance of caution as HazMat experts at the scene late Thursday found there was nothing to indicate a hazardous materials situation.

The Dumpster fire was first reported Wednesday night, and fire crews repeatedly extinguished it only to have it reignite. When it flared up again Thursday morning — spewing large amounts of smoke that combined with morning fog to form a dense haze filling the valley — officials became concerned it was being fueled by hazardous materials and notified environmental health and HazMat experts.

According to a California Emergency Management Agency hazardous materials spill report, the fire was first reported at about 8 p.m. Wednesday and broke out in a 40-yard Dumpster in the Whitethorn transfer station located on the 14700 block of Briceland Road.

Whitethorn Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ben Fieseler said crews responded to the fire Wednesday night and quickly doused the fire with water.

”We put it out,” Fieseler said, adding that his crew thought that was the end of it. “But a few hours later that night it rekindled, and we were dispatched again.”

After again putting out the fire, Fieseler and his crew were roused again early Thursday morning when the fire flared back up. At that point, Fieseler said, crews spoke to employees at the dump who said they’d seen some hazardous chemicals in a different Dumpster a few days before and really didn’t know what was in the Dumpster that was on fire.

”That sent up some red flags because we realized we didn’t know what was in there,” Fieseler said. “At that point, it became a HazMat situation.”

Smoke from the fire was also hanging low and mixing with the morning fog, creating a “real unpleasant smoky haze in the valley,” according to Fieseler, who said crews then decided to close Briceland Thorn Road and warn residents to stay in their homes if possible. Due to the road closure, Southern Humboldt Union School District was forced to cancel an afternoon bus route from Whitethorn School. A district spokeswoman said buses were running normally on Friday.

Complicating the matter of fighting the Dumpster fire, Fieseler said, was the fact that the Dumpster sat right next to the parking lot, which drains into the Mattole River. Fieseler said fire crews were greatly limited in the amount of water they could spray into the Dumpster for fear it would run into the river.

When crews finally got the fire completely out late Thursday — using a foam spray to avoid runoff — they found nothing out of the ordinary in the Dumpster, according to Fieseler, just Styrofoam, some fiberglass, household trash and a few paint cans. Fieseler said the paint probably fueled the fire as an accelerant but didn’t really fall into the category of a hazardous material.

More than 20 firefighters from several departments responded to the fire, Fieseler said, and worked well together. In the end, he said, it was a lot of activity and concern for a pretty small fire.

”It’s just one of those things that, from time to time, happens at a dump,” he said.

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