Fort Ord Fires Still Blazing
Debate continues about the necessity or harmfulness of October burns.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
The embers of the October 2003 Fort Ord fire still glow hot for a small core of local activists who insist that prescribed burns are not the way to clear brush from the old army base.
At a workshop at Monterey Peninsula College on Thursday, Nov. 20, environmental activist David Dilworth argued that the Army should explore other methods to clear the former training areas.
Dilworth pointed to preliminary air quality reports from the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control Management District, which found that federal air quality standards for particulate matter--the tiny flecks in smoke that can be inhaled and even get lodged deep in the lungs--were exceeded during the burn.
Doug Quetin of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, who spent the days during the fires driving around the area making observations and taking air samples, says that the fires were indeed harmful.
According to air sampling conducted during the time of the prescribed burns, "It ranged from unhealthy to very unhealthy certainly, and most people know that on the Peninsula and along the Highway 68 corridor."
However, according to EPA documents, he says there is no documentation yet that breathing the smoke from such a short-lived burn poses long-term health threats--ailments that appear years later.
"The long-term effects are certainly the subject of studies," he says.
Dilworth said the justification for the burns which holds that fire is not harmful to the local ecosystem, is false. Citing his own research about the frequency of lightning strikes, Dilworth said the local maritime chaparral ecosystem does not depend on fire for regeneration.
But fire is used as a method to get to the unexploded ordnance (UXO) because clearing it mechanically, with bulldozers, is thought to be both harmful to the ecosystem and dangerous for workers who would be exposed to fragile, lethal and hidden munitions.
Dilworth''s contention that the fire is not needed naturally is at odds with the opinions of land management officials who oversee Fort Ord open spaces, as well as those of most scientists.
In a recent story in Coast Weekly, Bureau of Land Management botanist Bruce Delgado said the fire will dramatically rejuvenate the habitat and its animal residents.
Eric Van Dyke, a geographic ecologist for the Elkhorn Slough National Estaurine Research Reserve, who has done substantial research on maritime chaparral, concurs.
"It''s absolutely unequivocal that the habitat requires fire for long-term maintenance," Van Dyke says.
In the aftermath of the Oct. 23 prescribed burn, which jumped fire lines and burned three times the intended acreage, Dilworth demanded an environmental impact study of the multi-year burn program, which is designed to demilitarize areas by removing thousands of rockets, grenades mortar shells and other UXO.
Dilworth proposed alternatives--such as using magnetometer-equipped helicopters to locate the ordnance. He did not present a proposal for clearing the decades worth of ammunition once it''s detected from above.
"I am an expert on local fire ecology; I am not an expert on alternatives," he said. Asked how the ordnance would be cleared out from thick brush, he said: "I expect that would be a very slow-going process."
A veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency with expertise on air quality was scheduled to attend the event but did not show. About 15 people--many of them local activists--showed up for the more than two-hour session.
Curt Gandy, who has battled the Army over Fort Ord for years, contended that bomb-sniffing dogs and robots could be used to locate ordnance. He said the endangered maritime chaparral at Fort Ord is not worth taking risks for, because it is an ecosystem that''s been propped up by the Army and would have withered away over time without the base.
"Man is artificially supporting that, at what expense?" he said.
Some at the event argued that if Fort Ord were adjacent to one of the wealthier Peninsula towns, the Army would have been forced to find other ways besides fire to clear brush to reveal the ordnance.
Eventually, the presentation devolved into a bloviating free-for-all and circular argument, including claims that homeless people, employed to clear dangerous ordnance, had discovered Agent Orange out there, and that friends of friends had had their "legs blown off" when they wandered into the training area.
The attendees took turns telling their own versions of the day of the fires. Lance Houston, a Seaside activist, talked about what some at the meeting described as "devastation."
"I have friends who experienced nosebleeds and vomiting from the smoke," he said.
Little mention was made at the meeting of the Army''s expensive relocation program. The Army offered to pay hotel, food and gasoline bills for anyone who wanted to leave the area during the prescribed burn period.
At the latest count, some 700 people signed up under the program--hundreds more than last year (and including a contingent of college students who, according to some sources, wanted the hotel rooms to party in on the taxpayer dime).
The Army has already reimbursed 63 families for pre-arranged food and lodging at a cost of $28,250, and 120 families for just lodging, at $40,000. Other residents made their own arrangements on the understanding they would submit receipts. So far, the Army has reimbursed 21 of these families at a cost of $14,500. The balance, more than 500 families'' worth of receipts, come in at about 10 daily, according to Army spokesperson Lauren Solis. The relocation refunds come out of the $25 million allocation to clear the ordnance.
During the forum, the name of Rep. Sam Farr was invoked numerous times, although he did not have an envoy present. After the burns went out of control in late October he was quoted expressing disappointment. However, Farr''s chief of staff, Rochelle Dornatt, says he wants to press on.
"It''s sort of a Catch-22," Dornatt says. "Mr. Farr doesn''t want to fill the air with smoke or the community to feel endangered. On the other hand, he wants to see this land go into habitat management, the species protected and he wants the UXO cleaned up."
One major accusation made on Thursday night (and repeatedly over the years) is that the burning ordnance releases harmful toxins into the air. Dornatt points out that independent studies of the smoke content found that the smoke from the Fort Ord burns--despite allegations that it is laden with toxic chemicals from detonating ammunition--contains no more harmful ingredients than forest fire smoke, which should not be inhaled either.
"If the UXO posed a major health risk," she says, "I don''t think you''d see Sam coming out in favor of the burns."
Still, Farr wants more answers.
"We are still looking at doing a hearing," Dornatt says. "There are some things to be explained."