Tires Burning by the Acre

Tires Burning by the Acre



Tires stretching into the distance numbered 3 million in Hudson, Colo.half of them burned last June, and part of the response was protecting safety lanes between piles.

Tire dump fires defy the usual suppression tactics and generate by-products that pollute water and air.

(Photos by Bill Willcox)

JANUARY 6, 1988—BERKS COUNTY, PA. —Thick, black smoke could be seen and synelled as much as two miles away as nine volunteer fire departments shuttled half a million gallons of water to a remote acre of burning junk tires. After nine hours, firefighters succeeded in isolating the fire, then waited for it to burn itself out.

State environmental officials say pollutants from the burning tires have fouled the air and may have fouled the water, but because of the fire’s location in a primarily rural area, with no people living nearby, the pollutants pose “no imminent danger to surrounding residents.”

Morgantown Fire Chief Tom Hostetler says no estimate is available on the number of burned tires or the thousands of wheels with them because no owner has come forward to claim them.

DECEMBER 28, 1987-STANISLAUS COUNTY, calif.—The California attorney general’s office has charged that the owners of Ed’s Tire Disposal, near the town of West ley, is “maintaining a public nuisance and threatening the public health and safety” with an estimated 42 million tires covering 40 acres to depths of more than 100 feet. The state says the fire hazard poses “an all-too-real threat” to people living within a 200-mile radius of Westley in California’s Central Valley.

Every firefighter who has seen a tire burn on a vehicle has a basis, however slim, for imagining the intensity of the inferno created by a burning pile of junk tires.

From one end of our nation to the other, the potential for fires in the growing stockpiles of used tires is creating nightmares for fire department planners. Last June, a fire which destroyed half of the 6 million used tires stored outside Hudson, Colo., created more pollution in 17 hours than the residents of Denver create in five years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plume of toxic smoke was visible from Scottsbluff, Neb., about 135 miles to the northeast; pilots reported the smoke as high as 12,000 feet.

Preincident planning of how to handle a potential fire in an open setting can be a challenge under the best of circumstances. With junk tire stockpiling operations, planning may have to be a constant process. In less than four months, one firm in Benicia, Calif., a city of some 25,000 about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, amassed a pile estimated at 1½ million tires. That’s an accumulation of 12,500 tires a day, enough to be a threat in any community almost overnight.

Prefire planning will have to consider the potential for pollution from a fire’s by-products (carbon dioxide, benzene, and suspended particulates —not to mention a strong sulfur odor); the remote locations of and difficult topography surrounding many disposal sites; their sheer size; and a potential lack of cooperation from stockpile operators.

The usual choices of fighting the fire with water, foam, or even slurry dropped from aircraft lose their effectiveness in the face of a fire involving stockpiled tires covering more than a certain area — say, 100 square feet. Larger tire fires may generate so much heat that the water poured on them literally vaporizes at first. But other choices exist.

One is simply a “no fight” option. No firefighter likes to make that decision, but in the case of tire fires, the question is: Will fighting the fire cause more environmental harm than not fighting it?

The other strategy may be more effective: using scrapers, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment to bury the burning tires and to separate them from other tires into a segment which can be attacked effectively. Moving earth was the key to putting the Hudson fire out quickly. When a similar number of tires burned in Somerset, Wis., in the fall of 1986, the blaze took 30 days to extinguish without dirt.

How Many Tires?

Counting tires in a junkpile is very difficult; making a few reasonable estimates is fairly easy.

Tires on the subcompact cars which now seem to dominate our highways measure just about two feet across. Laying them out neatly on a square, 208-by-208-foot acre, you’d use more than 10.800 tires. Stacked 10 feet deep and compressed to about 4 inches thick, 325,000 tires should fit easily.

In such huge numbers, of course, most tires aren’t stacked neatly. As a result, the tires are actually piled much more densely than neat stacks would allow. That’s why the estimate of at least 42 million tires on a 40-acre site near Westley, Calif., means an average of more than 1 million tires an acre.

The Hudson fire created more pollution (top right) in 17 hours than Denver does in five years. Because most extinguishing agents lose their effect in the intense heat,burying the fire in dirt (right) is one possibility; but bulldozer operators must be properly trained to use SCBA and safety lanes must be maintained.

(Photos by Bill Willcox)

California fire departments are fortunate that the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection maintains a fleet of earthmoving equipment for its own firefighting efforts, equipment which is also available to county and municipal departments. But coordination with contractors where little government-owned equipment is available presents special problems.

Few civilian equipment operators are likely to be experienced with or even trained to use selfcontained breathing apparatus, which must be used when working in or near toxic smoke and gases. Equipment and operators may not be close, or they may be committed to other work. Even when the equipment and operators are readily available, the logistics of supplying them with fuel and food for any extended operation add to the prefire planning burden.

Nor is there much advantage to having the equipment if there’s little or no earth available to be moved. Getting a reluctant stockpile operator to cooperate by allowing huge piles of make-up dirt to be stored along with the tires is a virtual impossibility.

It may take some public relations and political compromise to solve these problems. Legislators reluctant to pay for expensive earthmoving equipment with limited use may be receptive to alternatives. One could be requiring contractors who bid for frequently lucrative public works and government construction contracts to train their operators to use SCBA. Another might be exempting, to some extent, contractors who make their equipment available to fight fires from the full burden of missed deadline penalties. Both expand the range of the socalled public-private partnerships at minimal cost to taxpayers.

Approach your planning from this perspective: If all of the tire stockpiles in my jurisdiction burn at the same time, what will it take to mount successful attacks in every case?

With that approach, planning is likely to involve experts in other fields, especially environmental.

One reason is that, even though the most effective way to extinguish a fire in a burning tire pile may be to bury it and smother it, that choice may create its own problems with the formation of an instant landfill: It took 45,000 cubic yards of earth to put out the Hudson, Colo., fire last year.

When such a fire does start, the appropriate environmental officials should be included in the incident command structure as quickly as possible. Seek their advice on the locations for building protective dikes to prevent runoff of acidic water.

Include topographical maps and soil composition maps in your plan. What you choose to do if a dump is at the top of a hill is likely to be very different from what you will do if the tires fill an old quarry or overfill a big ditch or gully. If the site is hard to reach, or if you’re not getting cooperation from the owner, consider using aerial photography with frequent updates if you suspect the tire stockpiles are being expanded.

Particularly if you suspect an operation is less than legitimate, take an activist role as early as possible. Properly alerted, zoning and other officials may have ways to prevent small problems from growing into huge ones.

In your efforts to anticipate specific situations, determine prevailing wind direction, not only for your attack plan, but also for the possible impact of toxic smoke and fumes on nearby residents downwind. In your worst-case scenarios, plan to evacuate.

Plan for wind shifts, as well. In many areas, especially coastal and mountainous regions, winds virtually reverse direction at sunrise and nightfall. Use that information to make certain firefighters under your command never have a tire fire’s intense heat and toxic smoke blowing in their faces because of poor planning.

Remember that the intense heat of larger tire fires often creates firestorms not unlike those encountered in wildland and forest fires. Fighting such a blaze from up close may be impossible.

Safety lanes may save a piece of equipment.

Intense cold may also be a factor. During January’s fire in Berks County, Pa., firefighters had to make certain the water kept moving. Left still too long, the water froze and became useless. Runoff water did freeze in many small patches around the fireground, making it hard for firefighters to get around on the ice.

Newspaper reports say the smoke at that fire was so thick that firefighters could only see the edge of the flames, which made it almost impossible for them to determine the full extent of the fire from the ground. Dense smoke makes attack operations more difficult and more dangerous.

Nighttime may cause similar problems, especially when it’s difficult to gain an accurate set of perspectives on where the fire is burning. Under such circumstances, other tactics may be valuable: cooling nearby tire piles; cutting back to a skeleton crew so others can get food, sleep, and relief; and refueling and repositioning vehicles to start operations as early as possible after first light in the morning.

Your attention to detail in planning and at the incident may well make the difference in other ways. A tire stockpile presents one set of problems; a stockpile in which hundreds or thousands of tires are still on their steel wheels will present other problems. One tire in the tread of a bulldozer, for example, may not cripple the machinery; but a tire still on its wheel is almost certainly going to stop the heavy machinery literally in its tracks. The safety lanes you’ve planned for may be the difference between saving that piece of equipment and its operator, and having one or both of them become casualties.

The dangers for the fire service continue to mount as the number and size of junk tire stockpiles grow. But the situation isn’t as bleak as it appears.

Motivated by fire officials who have had bad experiences, some states are starting to tighten the regulatory climate around stockpile operations, as Minnesota has by issuing permit rules. And the National Fire Protection Association, whose standards now cover indoor storage only, is working on additions that would cover outdoor storage, as well. [See “Tire dump rules considered,” in Dispatches, page 21 of the April issue.]

In the field, officials are sharing their experiences on the urgent need for planning and safety, including awareness of the need for safety lanes to protect operators and permit removal of equipment in case of sudden wind shifts or equipment failure, the dangers of nighttime operations, and the need for SCBA.

Tire disposal operations will always present problems, and no law or regulation can provide total protection against an unscrupulous operator. Because firefighting tactics are so different in large stockpile fires, preincident planning and training with the help of aerial slide photography are imperative.

Loveland, Colo., has a dump with 8 million junk tires. Another Colorado dump, outside Aurora, has 8 million stockpiled on top of a site already filled with hazardous waste.

The next tire fire could be close to your hometown. What you do now to prepare will determine how well your department handles the next incident you’re called upon to respond to.

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