Even with the more than 500,000 gallons of water that have been trucked into the Bovoni Landfill over the past week and another 60,000 gallons dropped overhead, it’s still going to take about two more days to fully extinguish the fire that has continued to smolder and reignite since last Thursday, according to responders.
During a press briefing Friday morning, incident commander and V.I. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Director Darryl George said that his team has still continued to make headway, helped along by a coordinated National Guard response from within the territory and Puerto Rico, along with firefighters from St. Croix, a cadre of water haulers and partner agencies such as St. Thomas Rescue, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and V.I. Waste Management Authority that have manned an around-the-clock response.
The issue, however, is that the blaze that erupted last week seems to have been building for a while, exacerbated by a methane fire that’s been burning under the dump for years – a scenario that George likened to a “coal pit.”
With the gas emanating from below and the heat beating down from above, the pile of vegetative debris that has been sitting at the landfill since 2017 ignited, with flames climbing from the bottom to the top, he explained. A small portion on the left-hand side of the pile remains intact.
“The rest of it is on fire and that fire seems to have been burning for a long time,” George said. “Within the pile, there’s a crater on the top where it has collapsed, so we can see down into the crater and see the fuel down there burning – it’s a large area, about 16,000 cubic yards or more of mulch and it’s on a slope, so it’s a challenge.” Mixed in are tree trunks and old utility poles that George added are responsible for the larger flare-ups.
As hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were thrown onto the pile and a State of Emergency was declared in an effort to get the blaze fully contained, a Blackhawk helicopter provided by Puerto Rico’s National Guard joined the fight, conducting about 100 aerial water drops over the past two days. The drops were discontinued Friday after it was seen that high winds over the landfill were pushing the helicopter closer to a nearby hill, making it dangerous for those on board.
“This operation will continue until we get the fire completely out. We have made some headway, a big push to get this out, and as long as it keeps burning we will coordinate and offer support,” George said.
In the meantime, Adjutant General Kojo Knox-Limbacker said his team was able to perform air quality testing at the two schools, Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School and Antilles School, that have been closed over the past week and determined the campuses were safe from hazardous materials.
Left up in the air is what happens to debris after future storms, which VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen said is an ongoing discussion with the Army Corps of Engineers.