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In northern Benton County, signs welcoming people to a golfing resort called Olor Terrible would probably have very little drawing power.

A contest a little more than 100 years ago gave the area its name, Bella Vista (Spanish for "beautiful view"), which for good reason has had staying power. From those informal days to the town's incorporation as a city in 2006, there was never any serious question that the name represented its qualities quite well.

What’s the point?

A public response to an underground fire in Bella Vista must include questions by local and state officials about how it all could have been prevented.

In recent months, though, a smoldering underground fire on Trafalgar Road has fouled the air for nearby residents, making the view far less important than the atmosphere. The beauty of what one can see takes on secondary importance when one is struggling to breath.

In a ravine on a piece of private property, the ingredients of today's health risk to area residents began to come together years ago. What some refer to as a "stump dump" was operated by the Bella Vista Property Owners Association for 13 years, but today's property owner is Brown's Tree Care. It appears more than stumps have been dumped there, a complicating factor for a future effort to extinguish a subterranean blaze that could be 60 feet or more below an unstable surface.

Last July, firefighters responded to reports of smoke. Who could have known at the time that it was the beginning of an episode that would require the attention of a congressman and the state's governor, who in recent days committed $1 million in state funding to begin the process of extinguishing the stubborn environmental irritant?

"If it was out in the desert somewhere, you'd just let it burn its way out," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said last week. "But it happens to be around people, and people's lives mean something, so we want to be able to take action."

Action means money. Experts brought in to evaluate the situation have told state officials the options to put out the fires under the surface could cost anywhere from $7 million to $10 million, the governor said. His initial commitment of funding will probably just cover the costs of engineering a workable plan of attack to give relief to the residents nearby.

"They're entitled to have healthy air that they breath," Hutchinson said. "Their children should be able to play outside. When you have a day care, children shouldn't have to be confined inside because of the smoke outside."

The state's remediation fund, the governor said, has about $8 million in it. Bella Vista's site isn't the only location in the state in need of attention, so the state will have to look for ways to replenish that fund. The emergency circumstances, however, demand a public response to what Hutchinson described as a situation that started with "a private error, whenever you have a disposal site that is not properly managed, not properly developed."

Fair questions can be, and must be, raised about what steps might have kept this from becoming a public health issue. The "private error" happened years ago with stumps and other materials creating an underground environment that can sustain a long-smoldering blaze. Ben Franklin's notions about an ounce of prevention certainly seem to apply here.

Could a few thousand dollars worth of oversight back then have saved millions now?

Are there methods to put out the blaze? Yes, such as insertion of inert gases that rob underground areas of oxygen that fires need, or the use of foam or chemical treatments through similar insertion. Experts are doubtful about those approaches, though, because the filled-in ravine isn't stable enough for the equipment needed to drill and the use of chemicals could lead to even more environmental complications.

The likely solution appears to be digging the combustible material out until it can all be extinguished, then either hauling it away or reburying it on-site using practices designed to prevent the conditions that allow such underground flames to take hold. The bad news for folks nearby? Excavation of the site and dousing it with water probably means the odor and smoke will get worse before it gets better.

We applaud the governor's attention to the situation and hope local and state officials can use the experience to seek serious answers about how this situation could have been avoided and reasonable measures they can take to head off similar circumstances in the future.

If anyone needs additional evidence as to the wisdom of such an approach, we suggest visiting with the people wearing masks and stuck inside their homes in Olor Terrible near Trafalgar Road.

Commentary on 01/06/2019

Print Headline: Smoky Vista

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