Somewhere between 2 and 3 billion used tires are languishing in stockpiles and landfills across the United States, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and there’s about one used tire thrown away for every person in the country each year.
When they catch fire, all hell breaks loose. Tire fires are a notoriously nasty phenomena. Once they begin, they’re tough to stop, and they release some of the most noxious toxins imaginable. The heat is tremendous, and tires begin melting into a sticky, burning-hot pool of oil—so firefighters can’t exactly approach on foot. Burning just one passenger car tire can produce two gallons of oil.
When a stockpile of some 100,000 tires caught fire for unknown reasons in rural Odessa, Texas, last week, the local firefighters were immediately overwhelmed. The nearest fire hydrant was four miles away, and firefighters were left to helplessly drive in fire trucks, deplete their water tanks, and turn around to get more—only to return to an ever-larger fire. They could only stand by while it burned.
“The rubber just stays hot and it will adhere to your boots and the bunker gear,” Jimmy Ellis, the volunteer fire chief in West Odessa, Texas, told local outlet OA Online.
So after a day of attempts, the Texas firefighters called in the US Environmental Protection Agency, which deploys equipment and specialized teams when an environmental emergency is too challenging for local officials to handle. Without enough water to extinguish the fire, the EPA team resorted to smothering the three-acre fire in a layer of dirt. After nearly a week of continuous burning, the EPA contained the blaze Monday (April 17).
The week-long burn made for incredible drone footage.
That dark black plume of smoke contains some of the worst toxins imaginable for human health. According to the EPA, the smoke can contain carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, furans, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and a litany of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, nickel, zinc, mercury, chromium, and vanadium that can make people sick.
“Depending on the length and degree of exposure, these health effects could include irritation of the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, respiratory effects, central nervous system depression, and cancer,” according to an EPA report from 1997.
In 1983, around 7 million tires caught fire in Winchester, Virginia, and the blaze took nine months to put out—contaminating the surrounding water with lead and arsenic that took the EPA two decades to clean up. In 2012, when a fire broke out at a tire dump in Kuwait, the toxic plume from the fire could be seen from space.