July 8, 2002 – A heavy dark cloud bubbled with white puffy smoke about 100 feet high as flames crackled at the Anguilla Landfill on St. Croix's south shore Monday.
Deputy Fire Chief Roosevelt Parson said the fire broke out around 1 p.m., the cause not immediately known. An emergency team was briefed about 3 p.m. and a command post was set up in a small concrete scale house normally used to weight loads of trash coming in to the site.
The smoke spread some eight miles from Anguilla, to Sandy Point. The Planning and Natural Resources Department issued a warning to residents in the direct path of the smoke cloud to stay indoors, close their windows, and disconnect downspouts leading to cisterns. "The smoke may affect persons with allergies and respiratory ailments, as well as elderly persons," it said.
The release also advised homeowners to "hose off their roofs before reconnecting their downspouts."
Personnel from Fire Services, DPNR, the Public Works Department, the Port Authority, Hovensa and other support agencies responded to the scene, along with volunteers. Fire trucks were on hand from the Grove Place and Richmond fire stations. Hovensa fire crews brought a large suction pump and a distribution device which propelled 500 gallons of salt water per minute 50 feet into the air directly from the south side beach. Parson said Hovensa also provided hoses.
Orange flames crackled and leaped from pile to pile of metal debris as if playing hide and seek. As one was contained, another sparked up as if teasing the firefighters. "Manpower! Manpower!" echoed a call over the short-wave radio for more hands to haul hundreds of feet of hose. Lt. Juan Velez called for more water: "Dale agua. This is an emergency. Give me some pressure."
"I'm here to assist," Epifanio Felix Jr., Port Authority fire chief, said, directing his personnel to tackle the northwest quadrant of the piles of scrap metal, cars, boats, galvanized roofing and tires. But VIPA's 1,500-gallon trucks were no match for the flames.
"I walked this site 10 days ago," said Stella Saunders, public relations official for DPW's Waste Management Division. "This will burn for about three to five days. The manpower is here, but the equipment lacks the ability to control a fire of this magnitude."
"Take all those guys out of there," Fire Service Inspector Marcellino Ventura directed, his freckled face covered with soot, as an explosion came from a green truck.
As night fell, Ventura called headquarters for a generator and lights. "We're gonna be out here for the night," he said. "This is going to take days."
Ventura said the fire had already sped 600 feet westward. At 6:40 p.m., he said there was still a lot of unburned rubbish. For the moment, he explained, "We are not trying to fight the fire or to extinguish it. We are just trying to contain it."
FAA's landfill closing deadline looms
Nearly two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the V.I. government a deadline of Dec. 31, 2002, to close Anguilla down, saying it posed a threat to aircraft taking off and landing at nearby Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. The threat was twofold, agency officials said: from foraging birds which frequent the dump and from spontaneous combustion fires and the smoke they cause.
On May 20, the takeoff of a small plane was aborted after a bird collided with the aircraft.
FAA rules state that a landfill should not be within 10,000 feet of the runway.
As the landfill blaze raged Monday, a dirt path led to the strategic firefighting center, located between piles of flaming debris rising about 40 feet high. Team leaders yelled commands to 12 firefighters and four volunteers scattered amid the piles. "That's a lovely fire," one firefighter said as he scurried along the path.
Dwayne Fergus of Fergutrax leaped up into his "Tracovator" and plowed through the flaming hills, creating a barrier between the impending flames coming from the west. Fergus said he is familiar with the layout of the landfill because he is contracted by the government to aerate and cover debris dumped there.
He called Monday's blaze "one of the most serious fires on the landfill that I have seen," recalling another at the site about three years ago. "I am concerned about the people down wind from the airport," he said. "Certainly they can't stay in their homes tonight."
Interim waste plan is cause for concern
Fergus had longer-range concerns, as well. "If they go to wrap and bail, they will have a storage bomb just like this," he said, referring to the government's plan to store its solid waste on an interim basis for several years until a new waste-processing system is in place.
On June 22, the government completed negotiations with Landfill Technologies Corp. of Puerto Rico to operate an interim waste collection and recycling program that is to involve wrapping, baling and storing of trash. The operation, estimated to cost the government upwards of $10 million to start and $5 million a year to maintain, still needs Senate approval.
It is estimated that St. Croix produces over 200 tons of trash per day. A big question is where to put it from now on. One suggested alternative to Anguilla is a site in Estate Slob used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for debris disposal after Hurricane Hugo. Another is a 79-acre site in Estate Coble.
Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II, who showed up at the dump on Monday dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, said he has located property on St. Croix that is suitable for the interim waste site and "won't affect anyone." Watching the fire crews, James said, "I give a lot of accolades to these young men." Fergus, he said, "just took that backhoe and drove right into that fire with no fear."
Firefighters clad in red hats and suspenders and black gloves and boots dragged lengths of hose along the ground. Last week, six new firefighters graduated from training to join personnel at four St. Croix fire stations. One rookie, Terrance Christopher, watched the experienced firemen, awaiting directions from his senior crew members. "It's something I always wanted to do," he said.
Food arrived from Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Firefighters grabbed a piece of chicken, gobbled it down in one bite and ran back to their posts. Ventura thanked the restaurants for providing the meals. "They always assist us when we call them to help feed our crew," he said.
Marlon Williams, an off-duty firefighter and amateur photographer, said he came out to get some pictures. But "you know, once the fire gets into your blood, you got to help, he said. "I stayed to help the brothers."
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