Flare still causing false alarms on Interstate 5

Flare still causing false alarms on Interstate 5
In this April 10, 2013 photo, Dick Heard stands near the flare that burns off excess methane from the sewer lagoons he owns near Wilbur, Ore. A methane-fueled torch visible from Interstate 5 still causes motorists to dial 911 a year after the owner of sewer lagoons installed a blinking blue light to make the shooting flames look less like a burning building. (AP Photos/The News-Review, Michael Sullivan)

WILBUR, Ore. (AP) — A methane-fueled torch visible from Interstate 5 still causes motorists to dial 911 a year after the owner of sewer lagoons installed a blinking blue light to make the shooting flames look less like a burning building.

A driver at 3:34 a.m. Tuesday called an emergency dispatcher to report "very large flames" coming from the roof of a house near Milepost 133, halfway between Roseburg and Sutherlin.

The call was a familiar one to Douglas County emergency personnel. Ever since the lagoons' operator, Heard Farms, set up the flare several years ago, drivers have been mistaking it for an uncontrolled fire.

After 18 false reports, Heard Farms owner Dick Heard last year placed the strobe light near the base of the flare. The thinking was that dispatchers could ask callers if they saw a blinking blue light near the fire and then determine whether to send firefighters.

Douglas County Fire District No. 2 Fire Chief Greg Marlar and county Emergency Communications Manager Katy Stall said the blue light has greatly reduced false reports. But it hasn't been a perfect fix, as evidenced by the Tuesday morning call and another report just two weeks ago.

"If our caller isn't sure, we don't take a chance," Stall said.

Heard's two lagoons began taking septic tank waste and kitchen grease in 1998, a venture that drew opposition from neighboring residents. Heard said his lagoons take about 70 percent of Douglas County's rural septic pumpings, as well as a majority of the county's restaurant kitchen grease and sewage from parks and rest areas. More than a million gallons is added to the lagoons each month, Heard said.

As the waste degrades, a cover traps gases, which are burned off through the flare. The torch burns most of the day this time of year.

In 2010, Heard installed the $742,000 methane flare and pond covers to reduce odor. About $231,000 of the cost was covered by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The year before, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined Heard $76,637 and ordered him to modernize his operation. Heard said the fine was reduced and he paid $4,300 after making the improvements.

On Tuesday morning, Fire District 2 firefighters responded with three engines, knowing all along they were almost certainly heading toward a false alarm.

"We knew. But we have to go," Marlar said. "We can't just assume."

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Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press