Blanket of wet cow poop smothers lagoon fire

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2004

FERNDALE, Wash. (AP) Talk about fighting fire with fire. Crews fighting a smoky, stinky blaze in the dried crust of a 3-acre manure lagoon on a dairy farm finished smothering the flames Wednesday with more of the same a blanket of wet cow poop.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, said Assistant Fire Chief Larry Hoffman with Whatcom County Fire District No. 7. Hoffman received an earful of complaints about the smoke and odor as the fire burned for four days on the farm outside Ferndale, about 100 miles north of Seattle.

''We're not the most popular department in town,'' he said. ''It's offensive, the smell is. It stinks.''

How bad?

''In your worst nightmare, if you can imagine burning manure combined with a brush fire this sort of woody undertone.''

The fire ''changes the smell of the manure, intensifies it.''

After working with water and foam, crews on Tuesday began spraying the wet manure, which squelched flames on the leading edge of the fire. On Wednesday, a giant pump applied another layer of wet manure and that seemed to do the trick.

''It's out!'' Hoffman said Wednesday evening, at least ''about 98-99 percent out. There's some small pockets burning in the crust, but nothing that's going to affect anything.''

Hoffman declared himself ''extremely, extremely pleased,'' adding, ''Hopefully residents of the area will be pleased, too.''

As many as 18 firefighters at a time worked on the blaze. A fire break had been dug around the pond, so the flames couldn't leap elsewhere on the 1,200-acre, 700-head dairy farm, Hoffman said.

He declined to identify the owners but said they had been ''extremely cooperative.''

The cause of the fire was not known. It started Sunday in brush growing on the dry 3- to 14-foot crust of manure, wood chips and barn shavings on the surface of the 24-foot-deep lagoon.

''We're investigating the possibility it was an errant cigarette butt or it could be spontaneous combustion from composting,'' Hoffman said, describing the lagoon as ''basically a big compost pile.''

Most complaints to the Mount Vernon-based Northwest Air Pollution Authority, which monitors pollution concerns in Skagit and Whatcom counties, were about the smoke, staff engineer Annie Naismith said.

The authority had received 18 complaints, mostly from Ferndale. Though some people complained about respiratory problems, most of the complaints were about the smoke during weather that was ''too hot to keep doors and windows closed,'' Naismith said. All jokes aside, it was hazardous work for fire crews.

''Our hoses only go so far. We can't go out on it,'' Hoffman said earlier. Below the crust of varying depths, ''It's like quicksand. If they went down we'd never find them."

''I've been doing this for 20 years and never dealt with anything like this,'' he said.

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