Lingering fire leads to friction on Dobbs Road

For about a month, a fire has been burning at North Oak Recycling on Dobbs Road in St. Johns County.


Firefighters dumped more than 2 million gallons of water at the wood-processing facility but weren’t able to extinguish it. That’s because the fire, which the owner said started with a lightning strike, is buried within piles of wood debris. Firefighters haven’t been able to get to the root of the flames.

The facility does not intentionally burn debris, but only chews it up with a grinder and ships it off-site.

Neighbors say the smoke is a health hazard and is, for some, hurting business.

“My people couldn’t work in my warehouse. … It’s stopping my production,” said Judith Seraphin, owner of Global Wrap, a shrink-wrap business a few doors down from North Oak.

She also, in a statement to The St. Augustine Record, raised concerns about employees with breathing problems.

North Oaks owner Brandon Azzari said he understands that people are concerned about the smoke, but he said he’s doing all he can: His revenue is at a standstill as he spends more than $4,000 a day to haul out debris to address the fire.

“Let all my neighbors do the math on that and see how much it’s really affecting their bottom line as opposed to mine,” Azzari said, standing near what he described as 22,000 tons of burning wood.

The plan now is to separate piles to get to the root fire and extinguish it with the county’s help. If that doesn’t work, it will have to burn itself out, Azzari said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection asked for the fire to be extinguished this week, the second deadline the agency’s given. But it’s not clear when the fire will actually be put out.

The recycling plant is near several businesses on the heavily industrial road. Across the street is a yard filled with gas containers. Next door and across the street are auto repair shops.

North Oak Recycling is a wood-waste processing center of wood chips and yard and brush debris, according to its website. The site gets a lot of trees, and debris is processed in a grinder and shipped to power plants to be used for energy, Azzari said.

In addition to the current smoke problem, people complained about the wood chipping that had been taking place before the smoke issues began.

Phillip Johnson, owner of Auto Squad car care next door, said wood chips and particles have flown over the fence and onto his property.

“This kind of stuff, and even bigger chunks,” Johnson said, holding a piece of wood several inches long.

Now Johnson is concerned about the impact of the smoke, which permeated the air during a recent visit.

“It has affected business,” Johnson said, adding that customers have complained about the smoke smell getting in their cars.

On the other side of Dobbs Road, Scotty Auto Body owner Scott Hezel and an employee talked about rewashing a truck they were preparing to return to its owner — it had been covered in ash.

That’s something they’ve dealt with since North Oak’s fire started, Hezel said. Even their paint sprayer has started to collect ash, he said.

Hezel talked about a customer who was delaying bringing his truck in for work because of the smoke.

“He doesn’t want it smelling like smoke,” Hezel said.

Though North Oak doesn’t burn debris on site, Seraphin said she’s concerned about the facility being allowed in the area even under normal circumstances — gas is stored in the area, and she wondered what might have happened if the fire had spread.

“When you have a wood chip recycling … company across from a propane company [that] has their own gas pump there as well, and there [are] hundreds of people and businesses [that] are here, I wonder about the common sense of giving that kind of approval to have that property,” she said.

County fire and health departments haven’t fixed the issue or been helpful with complaints, she said.

St. Johns County Fire Rescue is monitoring the location, but there isn’t a concern about fire spreading because it is so deep in the debris pile, said Jeremy Robshaw, fire rescue spokesman. Right now, water is not the best solution for putting out the fire because it’s so deep, so the owner is moving debris.

County fire rescue is working with the property manager and FDEP and will be there to extinguish the fire if adding more water is needed, he said.

For people who are uncomfortable with the smoke, it is best to stay indoors where there is air conditioning, according to Noreen Nickola-Williams, director of the office of Public Health Practice and Policy at the Florida Department of Health in St. Johns County.

When the facility opened a few years ago, Azzari said he had to get special permission from the county to open, but no one opposed. Yet people complain not only about the smoke, which he said there’s nothing additional he can do about, plus routine processes like wood chipping.

He’s adjusted his operation, including installing a sprinkler system, to try to address a neighbor’s complaints about the wood particles, he said. He also said he has the right to have equipment fuel on site, and he hasn’t had fires before this one.

“All these people around me have no clue what it actually takes to run a business of this magnitude,” he said.

In an inspection after the fire began, FDEP found violations of state administrative code at the site. Those are for the fire — because technically now material is being burned without a permit. Other things that needed correction, according to the report, included roads through the facility that weren’t constructed properly and some piles of debris being more than 50 feet from access by fire equipment.

FDEP asked Azzari to have the fire extinguished this week. FDEP could issue a warning or pursue some enforcement if the facility doesn’t enter into a corrective action plan, said Brian Durden, FDEP environmental consultant.

Issues have been corrected at the site other than the fire, Azzari said. He said some debris piles on site were too large, but much of the debris that had been on site in July was from Hurricane Matthew.

While officials try to find a solution, the smoke has a daily presence both at neighboring businesses and at least one apartment complex.

Ponce Harbor, off Old Moultrie Road, is almost directly behind North Oak and a section of trees. Community management said they’ve only gotten a couple of calls about the smoke, but a concerned resident quickly surfaced during a visit.

Chris Landis, of Ponce Harbor, said he woke up a couple of weeks ago and noticed that his truck was covered in something.

“I ran my finger across the paint job, and it’s ash, so I’m like, what’s burning? And all of the cars here are covered in that,” he said.

He swiped his fingers across the hood again, covering them in soot. He said he’s given up on keeping the truck clean for now.

Since he heard the news on where the smoke is coming from, he’s been checking on progress.

The intensity of the smoke has not improved, he said.

“I’m a little incensed because I don’t understand why the fire department won’t put this thing out and deal with it. … A lot of folks have asthma. It’s not a healthy alternative to let something like that burn, in my opinion. … I just feel like the county should be stepping up here, and let’s just be done with it.”