The growing number of mulch fires in the east valley has caught the attention of local government officials. I-team reporter Karen Devine rode along with a newly formed county task force focused on reducing the risk of fires stemming from illegal dumping of green waste.
"For the first time we are actually doing something joined together to mitigate these issues," said Captain Fernando Herrera, CAL Fire, Riverside County Fire Department.
Herrera, a member of the newly formed Riverside County Combustible Materials Task Force, met the team in Mecca at Fire Station 40 ahead of a planned tour of unincorporated communities in the east valley along-side representatives from Code Enforcement, Environmental Health, Supervisor Manuel Perez’ office, and CAL Fire, Riverside County.
Devine was invited to ride along. Traveling as a passenger with East Desert Division Fire Chief Robert Fish, they headed to properties off Pierce Street and Avenue 72 in the Mecca/Oasis area to see where some of the worst green waste dumpings have been reported.
"It's a good example of some of the challenges that we're facing with trying to put downward pressure on illegal mulch dumping," said Fish.
Illegal mulch dumping is a big problem because piles of green waste can smolder, smoke and flare up into a large fire. In other words, self combust. But, that's not all, other dangerous items could be buried in the mulch, and when burning, can send pollutants into the air. Dangerous for firefighters and the community.
According to a report from County Supervisor Manuel Perez's office wildland fires are on the rise in the east valley. There were 221 fires in 2016. 261 in 2017 and 290 in 2018.
"These fires are not easy to put out, they take a lot of resources, they take a lot of time and specialized equipment," Captain Herrera of CAL Fire told Devine.
An example of how difficult these fires are to control and put out, the Martinez fire in Thermal burning for weeks this past October, at the Sun Valley Recycling Company, a 120-acre dump that legally composts green waste on the Torrez Martinez Indian Reservation. Sending thick smoke into the air. Schools nearby evacuated. Kids and educators complaining it was hard to breathe.
"I think that particular fire brought emphasis, more focus into what is actually going on here in the Coachella Valley," said Captain Herrera.
"What we're seeing here is illegal dumping, what you've got here are a variety of different issues, chips, palm material and very raw material that's probably coming in from landscappers and such," Brian Black of Riverside County Code Enforcement showed Devine.
These illegal dumpsites are not far off valley roads but remote enough that even with “No Dumping" signs visible, people take the chance to dump their green waste for free instead of paying at one of the valley's three legal sites.
Shantel Bacon and Environmental Health specialist brought along a large thermometer to measure the heat in mulch piles. She says if a pile reaches 135 degrees or more it needs to be monitored and turned often. And, it shouldn't be more than 12 inches deep.
"The concern is combustable materials igniting and this is a lot of product out here," Bacon told Devine.
Holding land owners, and illegal dumpers accountable is complicated. The parcels in question can be owned by different entities such as private ownership, the county or tribal land. And, there are no defining boundaries.
“It’s not one person that’s responsible or one agency that’s responsible it’s a huge complex problem that requires all of us to come together and work cooperatively to solve the problem and get the community involved,” said Eastern Division Chief, Fish.
County Supervisor Manuel Perez assembled the task force to address and clean up areas of concern before more fires are caused. saying it's a matter of public health. The team, together since summer, has made strides.
So far, as of today, thirty-three parcels have been referred to the task force for investigation. Eleven were found in violation. Six properties are in pre-litigation and ten that were inspected were found not to be in violation and clean up efforts are now underway.
"The whole idea is to induce property owners and violators to come into compliance on their own rather than keep jacking up the fines," says Brian Black of Riverside County Code Enforcement.
They say the public can help too by reporting illegal dumping and encouraging their own landscapers to dump their green waste legally.
The county is working closely with tribal leaders and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in this endevour to prevent illegal dumping and mulch fires.
To report illegal dumping in both english and spanish call (760) 393-3344.
Legal green waste facilities in the east valley are located below:
Coachella Valley Compost - 87011 Landfill Rd, Ste A, Coachella
Edom HIll Transfer Station - 70-100 Edom HIll Rd, Cathedral City
SA Recycling - 29250 Rio Del Sol Rd, Thousand Palms