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Red tide? Fireworks? Mystery of flaming rocks ignites theories

May 18, 2012 |  4:33 pm

   The mystery of the rocks from San Onofre State Beach that spontaneously combusted in the pocket of an Orange County woman's shorts has ignited something else: rampant speculation.

How the rocks collected by Lyn Hiner's children during a visit to the popular beach last Saturday could break into flames later in the day has stumped scientists and prompted some to offer their ideas for what happened.

Tests conducted by the Orange County Health Care Agency revealed that the rocks had trace amounts of a "phosphorous substance." The rocks have been sent to a state laboratory for further tests. One was large and a marbled gray; the other much smaller and colored a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle green.

On Twitter and elsewhere, some speculated that the substance could be linked to the San Onofre nuclear plant or the nearby Marine base at Camp Pendleton.

But officials from Southern California Edison, which operates the nuclear power generator, dismissed the rumors. "San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station does not use this chemical form at the plant nor is it a byproduct of the plant's operation," Jennifer Manfre, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.

And a Marine spokesman said Friday that there is no indication the flammable material came from anything being used during training at the base. But, he added, the base is prepared to help in an investigation if asked.

With the mystery unsolved, a host of theories bubbled to the surface Friday, with many Times readers sending in their own hypotheses.

One: San Mateo Creek could have carried fertilizer -- which, as you might guess, contains phosphorus -- from nearby farms into the waters near San Onofre State Beach. If there had been a red tide, which involves phosphates, lately at the beach, maybe the rocks were bathed in the phosphorous substance from that.

Another: The orange flecks on the rocks could have come from iron deposits that oxidized and rusted, and the phosphorus could have come from battery operations at Camp Pendleton.

Or maybe: Unexploded fireworks were formed into rocks by the tumbling action of the surf.

Meanwhile, Hiner, 43, remained hospitalized Friday in Santa Ana with second- and third-degree burns. In a statement released Friday, officials from Western Medical Center said the San Clemente woman was "resting comfortably and is recovering from her injuries."

"The family would also like to extend their gratitude to the physicians, nurses and all who have cared for her and her husband," the statement continued. "They also appreciate all the prayers being said on their behalf."


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-- Rick Rojas