In a matter of just two weeks, two Hidalgo County families in the Precinct 3 area lost their homes as a result of illegal trash burning, county officials said Thursday.
On April 24, the Gomez family lost their business and home in Mission due to a nearby fire sparked by a neighbor burning brush. The neighbor lost control of the fire and it ended up catching 43-year-old Cosme Gomez’s fence.
Though Gomez and an employee tried to douse the fire through various methods, including by using a garden hose and buckets of water from their pool, the fire eventually reached the home’s roof and quickly spread throughout the residence, a report from Hidalgo County Fire Marshal Investigator Roberto Chavez said.
Chavez ruled the fire as accidental, but it ultimately displaced Gomez, his wife and his four children. They are now staying at a local hotel, according to an update from the family’s GoFundMe page.
The next fire, which transpired on Mother’s Day in La Homa, destroyed another home and 13 vehicles a mechanic was working on for his clients, according to Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal. That blaze remains under investigation.
Those tragedies prompted Villarreal to hold a press conference Thursday morning to remind the community not only of the county’s no burn ban, but also the consequences of illegal burning.
“It’s a huge problem for the area and we just want to let the people know that this is dangerous,” Villarreal said in a phone call Thursday afternoon. “We’ve been very fortunate that lives were not lost in either of the [two] incidents, but we just want to let people know that we are concerned for our residents.”
To visualize his concerns, Villarreal held his press conference at the site of the current remains of Gomez’s home. He was joined by fellow Hidalgo County officials Judge Richard F. Cortez, Precinct 3 Constable Lazaro “Larry” Gallardo Jr. and the county’s Fire Marshal Homero Garza.
On March 23, Hidalgo County imposed a 90-day burn ban in which outdoor burning was restricted in the unincorporated areas of Hidalgo County and in incorporated cities without their own fire suppression resources. As of Thursday, Hidalgo County is on its 52nd day into the burn ban, with 38 days remaining.
During the press conference, Villarreal mentioned that Hidalgo County is “spending over eight million dollars in illegal trash that is being dumped,” and although he said he didn’t know the breakdown, Villarreal noticed there’s a trend rising.
“I know that in the last three years, it went from $6 million to over $8 million,” the commissioner said. “I’m assuming that maybe in the next two years, we’re going to go from $8 (million) to $10 million.”
Previously, the county provided The Monitor with figures on their sanitation expenditure history that showed last year’s collection and disposal of trash in unincorporated areas cost Hidalgo County $8.6 million. By law, Hidalgo County is prohibited from charging a fee to provide trash pick-up services in those areas.
Villarreal brought up Senate Bill 594, filed by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and co-sponsored by fellow Valley Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., which would allow the county to impose a fee to approximately 60,000 households in unincorporated Hidalgo County for trash pick-up.
Villarreal explained the bill would allow the county to service all of its residents, noting that some cities already have these services because they’re able to charge utility bills.
“That’s what we’re trying to push,” Villarreal said of the legislation. “I think it would be great for the county and our people to have the ability for everybody to get their trash picked up at home.”
While legislation work is at hand, Villarreal also noted during the press conference that they’re working on a surveillance monitoring system to “start enforcing and catching some of the people who are doing (illegal trash dumping and burning).”
When asked what that would entail, Villarreal explained they’d target “the most problematic areas” and the surveillance monitoring system will send an alert to the constable’s office or the sheriff’s office — or both — to see who is closest in the area to investigate where illegal dumping is taking place, so they can stop it.
He also explained that this idea was talked about in the past, noting that there are various areas where “the majority of the people go and throw their trash.”
“I think we need to crack down on those people that are maybe preying on people, charging very little to get the trash and then they’re just going and throwing it in dark colonias or roads that are not traveled as much,” Villarreal explained as he noted another concern. “We’re trying to track that or that’s what I think the intent is with a surveillance camera.”
Alternatively, there is a way for residents to dispose of their trash properly, Villarreal said: purchase a permit from the commissioner’s office to visit one of three sites in Precinct 3 to dispose of trash responsibly.
The commissioner explained that the prices for the permits range from $25, in which residents can attend any disposal location once a week for three months, to $100, which allows for the same but for the entire year.
In Precinct 3, there are three disposal sites:
>> Peñitas Landfill, located on West Military Road. On Mondays through Fridays, the site is open from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. This location is the only one open on Saturday between 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
>> Substation No. 1, located at 7 Mile Line and Trosper Road. On Mondays through Fridays, the site is open from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
>> Substation No. 2, located on Los Ebanos Road, two miles south of Expressway 83 and Farm-to-Market Road 886. On Mondays through Fridays, the site is open from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
Villarreal also said that they hold tire pick-ups every year, adding that he is trying to hold the event two or three times a year due to how big the tire problem is — especially when it rains.
The commissioner explained that water gets stuck inside tires, which is an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes that sometimes carry viruses such as West Nile and Dengue.
“We just need to be better neighbors,” Villarreal said in closing. “Come and get your permit, and come in and get rid of your trash responsibly.”