Cordova Chronicles: Burn Baby Burn

A sign with an arrow and a florescent pink rock mark the boundaries of Cordova’s popular burn pile, which has been moved back off the Orca Road right-of-way. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Burning trash has a rich, colorful, and often pungent place in Cordova history.

When Harris Sand and Gravel showed up in late September with a barge load of equipment to begin work on a major renovation project near the local burn pile, they discovered just how busy the smokey venue is while trying to move some of their equipment to the parking lot on the other side of the pile.

In fact, next to the post office, the burn pile is likely the most visited government entity in the city. For many Cordova residents, a day isn’t complete without a trip out Orca Road to the site; and many will make the expedition to burn material that wouldn’t fill the smallest garbage bag.

Burning trash has triggered many a fiery city council meeting and stirred controversial events that even cost a city manager his job.

A nearby sign indicates just what can be thrown in the pile, but it appears there are a number of Cordovans who would most likely fail reading or eyesight exams, because rare is the day smoke of an acrid non-wood odor does not emanate from the flames, which vary in size depending on the fire-starting skills of the visitor.

The sign says “BURN PIT, UNTREATED WOOD, BRUSH, AND CARDBOARD ONLY” with a smaller sign beneath it that was evidently posted later adding the qualifier “NO STUMPS.”

It turns out part of the burn pile is on the right-of-way for the Orca Road, which is a state road; and hence, because of a $4.8 million renovation project in the area, it was recently relocated further off the road.

This sign near the city burn pile, which now is relocated, lists the only items that should be burned there. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

The sign was also moved, and an arrow was added to direct where users should dump their materials. Also, a large rock painted fluorescent pink was added to mark the boundary of the pile and assist in backing safely to the area.

Samantha Greenwood, city public works director, along with city planner Leif Stavig and new public works supervisor Mark Wegner, happened to be examining the site and discussing changes in the area when I drove up on Sept. 25 to burn some cardboard boxes.

They were analyzing the impact of the renovations about to occur in the area, and also noted the hue of the smoke coming from the pile, which was correctly a pale blue from wood only.

I mentioned, based on the size of the fire, that it was a slow day at the pile, which some call the Cordova Recycle Center, because often more material seems to be leaving in the back of trucks than arriving.

As a case in point, I described several pieces of treated 2×12 planks that I saved from the flames that were later put to use making stairs at our duck cabin.

Oops. Greenwood was quick to note the sign indicating burning such wood was not legal.

My response was that I was in fact trying to prevent their burning, which garnered a chuckle.

The recurring rumor that burn piles are in fact illegal came up. Both Greenwood and Wegner stated they were allowed and common throughout the state, but the one thing that could cause their closure was Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) inspections into reported abuse, which can easily be recognized by the color or smell of the clouds of smoke that sometimes fill the air.

Hmmm. An hour later, when I returned to take some photos for this story, someone was throwing trash in plastic bags into the flames.

Guess what? Even if the contents qualify as burnable, the bags don’t.

And guess what else? Throughout the years, burn piles and garbage dumps have been scattered all over our fair city, and it is safe to say we are lucky to live in an era when strict standards apply — and our trash now travels to a landfill a mile above the highway at Mile 17.

In fact, the history of Cordova dumps and burn piles is so entertaining that rest assured, a feature about that very topic is in the works.

In meantime, Burn Baby, Burn — but only the right stuff.