The city's fleet of 1,500 water supply tankers was diverted Tuesday to help 10 Civil Defense firefighting units battling a huge overnight blaze in the main garbage yard.
The fire broke out at 4. A.M. and the dump, some 35 km east of Briman Bridge on Makkah Road, was still ablaze by nightfall.
Black smoke billowing from the conflagration turned the sky gray over the coastal city. Worst hit were the northeastern Al-Samer, Al-Mannar, Briman and Al-Rabea districts near the dump where residents reported breathing difficulty.
Hampering firefighting efforts were strong winds that saw the flames spreading from a 300 square-meter area to engulf at least 500 sq.m of the garbage dump by afternoon, said said Khaled Aqeel, the deputy mayor for Services.
Suspicion is on copper scavengers in the area, said Aqeel. He said the scavengers were mainly African nationals who make a living off the dump.
Smoke from the blaze cast a gray haze over the city, causing daytime temperature to plunge from 33°C on Monday. Residents as far away as Al-Hamra in the east, near King Fahd Hospital, said they could smell the smoke.
The smoke compounded breathing problems for many in nearby areas who were already down with a pulmonary infection from a virus that surfaced after Haj pilgrims began flocking to the city.
Khaled Aqeel, the deputy mayor for Services, said strong winds were hampering firefighting efforts. He said he suspected African nationals who have previously targeted the garbage dump for what has become a lucrative business in scavenging for copper wire.
Global copper prices, as with other metal commodities, have sharply increased over the past year with rising demand from booming construction activity in such large developing countries as China and India.
Scavengers find it convenient to set the garbage dump on fire so that the insulation of the copper wire melts and metal gleams, allowing for easy detection from the charred debris.
Tuesday's fire was the biggest yet sparked in the dump and it threatens to disrupt electricity supply to the city.
A source in the electricity company said the flames were scorching high-tension wires from a line power pylons cutting across the dump. If the blaze aggravates, power supply to Jeddah, Makkah and Rabigh could be cut off, the source said.
The electricity company has long warned the municipality against dumping garbage under high-pressure cables.
The municipality is said to be working on a plan to relocate the garbage yard within three years to a site some 25 km away from Jeddah. The plan is to turn the current site into a park.
Many residents in the nearby districts of Al-Samer, Al-Mannar, Briman and Al-Rabea, who have time and again had to suffer the smoke from fires in the garbage dump, said they've had enough.
Sa'ad Al-Sayali said his kids were admitted to a clinic two nights in a row because smoke from the garbage yard worsened their asthmatic condition.
There were many children with Sayali's kids at Al-Salaam Clinic, elderly people too were choking from the smoke."The smoke just keeps following us," Al-Sayali said, noting that there was a smaller fire at the garbage dump on Monday."It's only the second day but we can't stand it anymore," said Ahmad Al-Sheikh who lives in the Al-Marwah neighborhood. "I had to take my family to my brother's house," he said.
Salem Al-Harbi of Al-Rabea district said the smoke has driven his family away. He had invited his cousin to stay in his house but they have left because of the smoke, he said.
Residents in the vicinity have been urging the municipality to relocate the garbage yard further away from populated areas fringing the city, as in other countries.
Tuesday's firefighting operation disrupted water supply to the city as most of the city's fleet of 1,500 water tankers were diverted to the garbage yard.