Blowing Smoke

Did a landfill explosion cause the Santiago Canyon Fire? Umm . . .

Three weeks after flames erupted near the intersection of Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads, the so-called Santiago Canyon Fire is officially 100 percent contained. Meanwhile, a multi-agency task force including the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA), California Department of Forestry, ATF and FBI are investigating what—or more precisely, who—caused the fire.

Chris Conception, an OCFA battalion chief, refuses to provide details. "There are still leads coming in, although that's slowed down," he says. "We are still investigating but don't have any suspects."

The lack of progress in the arson investigation has caused at least one alternative—and highly inflammatory—theory to arise concerning the origin of the fire: An inactive landfill located near the intersection of Santiago Canyon and Silverado Canyon roads may have ignited the fire. The source for this theory is an organization called People Investigating Toxic Sites (PITS—nice one!), which has a post office box in Boonville and a website, www.toxicsites.org.

According to its website, the group is conducting a "current investigation" into whether the fire was caused by the spontaneous combustion of underground methane gas at the so-called Silverado Canyon Disposal Station No. 9, which sits below a Christmas-tree farm on Irvine Co. property just north of Silverado Canyon Road and hasn't been operating since the 1970s.

"Highly explosive and highly flammable methane gas is generated within landfills up to 100 years after closure," the Toxic Sites website states. "Did gases and fires within the closed dump cause the Santiago Canyon fire? Our investigation continues."

Janice England, who runs the website, has posted numerous messages in various OC online chat rooms asking for any information leading to the arrest and eventual conviction of the Silverado Canyon dumpsite. "Most closed dumps generate highly explosive and highly flammable methane gas," England noted in one message posted at an Irvine Housing Forums website. "Gases from Silverado Canyon Disposal Station No. 9 could have ignited the fire and fueled the flames. Does anyone have information on the dumpsite?"

In response to England's queries, many forum members ridiculed her. "It was an arsonist," one member responded. "Nice try."

"Nixon did it," said another.

Not wanting to be scooped on such a hot story, and undeterred by such small-minded skeptics, the Weekly promptly began its own investigation.

First, we contacted OCFA officials and asked whether it was possible the fire started at the dumpsite, given that it is located in the rough area where the fire reportedly ignited. But they told us that the actual origin of the fire was about a half-mile northwest of the dumpsite. Conception insists the fire was started by an arsonist, but suspiciously, he refused to provide much detail. "There were two points of origin," he said. "We are still actively investigating but don't have any suspects."

Intrigued, and sensing a cover-up, we called the Orange County Health Care Agency, which monitors the Silverado Canyon dumpsite, and asked how the landfill fared during the fire. "Our environmental-health staff . . . had a person go out there since the fire," said agency spokesman Howard Sutter. "There are no environmental-control measures at the site, so there are not any monitoring wells present there. . . . That facility didn't sustain any damage."

No monitoring wells? Hmm, that sounds suspicious.

So we filed a California Public Records Act Request with the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) and demanded all inspection reports of the dumpsite in the past decade. As expected, they stonewalled us—for about 30 seconds—before e-mailing us dozens of inspection reports going back 10 years. The reports confirmed that there are no methane-monitoring wells at the landfill because, as it turns out, there is no methane in the dumpsite that might catch fire. That's because, unlike many solid-waste dumpsites that do generate methane, the Silverado Canyon site is a "burn dump," meaning that everything dumped there was burned before it was buried, and ashes don't generate methane.

The Weekly reached Janice England by phone and shared with her the results of our exhaustive probe. She still suspects that the Silverado Canyon dumpsite ignited the fire because the site-inspection reports fail to mention whether any methane tests were done, or if any tests were carried out to measure hazardous—and potentially flammable—chemicals in the soil.

"If testing hasn't been done, I think it should be done," England says. "There was a fire, and it started very near the dumpsite. If there are gases, they would migrate underground. It doesn't mean much just because [the ground] above the dump didn't burn."

England promised she'd continue to dig into the mystery and post her results at her website. Stay tuned to www.toxicsites.org for updates on this hot story.


NSCHOU@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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