USA — Dann Meyers remembers well the day his car got just a little too hot for comfort driving home on Highway 4.
The Bethel Island resident was used to seeing smoke curling up from both sides of the road on his commute to Stockton, but that day the usually low-profile fire along this rural stretch of the highway had progressed to flames as tall as a single-story building and was disconcertingly close to traffic.
“I went all the way to the other side of the road,” said Meyers, who could feel the heat radiating through his passenger window.
His experience is not unique. Other motorists have been on the section of Highway 4 that straddles Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties when the long-standing, slow-burning peat fire in that area has flared up.
Occasionally, a fire truck will scream to the scene, but witnesses say the smoke always returns.
That’s just the nature of peat fires, says Paul Harper, who has seen more than one himself as manager of Bethel Island Municipal Improvement District.
Peat is a type of soil that forms when partially decomposed plant material builds up in a watery environment.
As the organic matter becomes compacted and decays, it generates oxygen, making it harder to extinguish once it starts burning, Harper said.
The only way to ensure the job’s done properly is to flood the affected area, he said.
Harper recalls a peat fire that began on Bethel Island in June 2004 after some bushes and weeds caught fire and burned to the underlying peat.
Although the island’s fire station put out the flames, the property owner still had to bring in pumps that could handle enough water to flood the site, Harper said.
The peat fire along the 1- to 11/2-mile portion of Highway 4 just east of Old River Bridge in San Joaquin County has been smoldering for well more than a year, according to a firefighter at East Contra Costa Fire District’s Station 58 in Discovery Bay.
The heat hasn’t damaged the asphalt or the underlying structure because Caltrans conducts weekly inspections of the roadway in that area, said Zelie Nogueira, public information officer for District 10 in San Joaquin County.
And when agency employees several weeks ago noticed the fire was getting a bit too close to the highway, Caltrans headed off trouble by drilling through the asphalt and soaking the underlying peat with water, she said.
Caltrans’ Delta Region Manager Robert Songey acknowledges that an unattended peat fire eventually could weaken the ground underneath Highway 4 to the point that the asphalt caves in, but he says it’s an unlikely scenario.
“We’ve never had a road collapse out there,” said Songey, who worked in District 10 for about 25 years before transferring to Contra Costa County.
More often than not, Caltrans simply lets the peat continue to burn, Songey said.
Fire stations in the area apparently have adopted the same attitude.
Emergency responders in both counties say the farmland in that area isn’t in any fire district.
As such, they generally will make the trip only if a peat fire poses an immediate danger to people or property.
“As long as it’s not damaging anything, they’re not going to respond,” said Mark Mitchell, a California Highway Patrol officer who regularly swings by the Discovery Bay area on patrol.