The town is called Bella Vista, but for thousands of residents living in this quiet, northwest corner of Arkansas, the outlook in recent times has been anything but.
For a staggering seven straight months, Bella Vista has harboured a toxic open secret: an endless smouldering fire at a former illegal dumping site, burning deep underground since August, and threatening to cost up to US$37 million to put out for good – if it can be extinguished at all.
The Trafalgar Road Fire – called the ‘Stump Dump’ fire by locals – is such a constant fixture for the town it even has its own Facebook page.
The toxic, smoky hazard officially began in August 2018, but might be traced to a call-out the Bella Vista Fire Department investigated in late July.
After arriving at the Stump Dump – a site informally used by townspeople for dumping tree stumps, leaves, and other organic waste – the responders decided the smoke hazard reported wasn’t serious.
“The fire was controlled”, a report states, and the workers left it “to finish burning its self [sic] out”.
That may have been a big mistake.
Only days later, heavy smoke hung in the air on the east side of the city.
“The former Stump Dump is on fire underneath the ground,” a community update on the fire explained.
“There is no safe way at this time for us to put out the fire. The heat and smoke are escaping through the cracks in the ground. This area is unsafe, do not go near the fire.”
Seven months later, not much has changed – but the constant toxic haze and fumes spewing out of the smouldering Stump Dump are taking a heavy toll on those who live and breathe among them.
“It’s a living nightmare,” local resident Stacey Lewis, who lives only a few hundred metres from the fire, told KFSM 5NEWS in December.
“You see it coming from the ravine from our house, and it’s just anxiety. You know it’s coming for you and you know it’s going to be there, you’re just not sure when.”
Compounding the ongoing blaze – and making the constant smoke more of a health hazard – is the fact that state authorities think the site was used for much more than just dumping organic matter such as tree bits.
The Stump Dump officially closed down in 2016, but authorities believe people also illegally discarded non-organic garbage at the site, including everything from general trash to batteries, wiring, and chemicals.
Analyses of the air quality in Bella Vista since the fire began have produced conflicting results, but an alert issued in December by the Arkansas Department of Health suggested EPA readings had detected heavy particle pollution, meaning the air was “unhealthy”.
The alert advised people to “avoid prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors” and said “sensitive individuals should consider spending less time in the area when they can see smoke in the air”.
For thousands of residents who live close to the Stump Dump, this is not easy advice to put into practice.
“When the wind is a little stronger it pulls it into the house, and the entire HVAC system smells of smoke, your kids are coughing, it’s absolutely horrible,” resident Amber Goin told KFSM 5NEWS.
“It’s a health issue that’s not being addressed right now.”
Initial estimates to put out the fire were about US$10 million, but more recent figures put the project at $21 million to $37 million, due to the complexity of extinguishing flames that are thought to be burning as deep as 21 metres (70 feet) underground.
While the expensive plan slowly comes together – expected to involve a complex mix of flooding, trenching, and excavations – Bella Vista’s residents wait, and wait.
Tomorrow is another day. Day 218, to be exact.
“I’m a veteran and this is probably one of the worst, most stressful situations to live in,” Chris Nelson, whose family has experienced persistent coughs and even bronchitis, told Associated Press.
“It’s been hell.”