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Tire fires pose hazards to air, land and water

A tire fire like the one burning at a Lockport tire recycler 24 hours after it was discovered creates substantial environmental hazards to air, land and water.

“One of the things you look at when there’s a tire fire is the run-off when you have a petroleum-based fire,” said Daniel J. Stapleton, the Niagara County’s public health director. “You have to worry about the run-off of water from when you’re fighting the fire.” He added: “They’re not far from the (Erie) Canal.”

Stapleton said the run-off was being successfully contained at the site under state Department of Environmental Conservation supervision.

However, state officials said that at first, “no oil sheen was detected in the Erie Canal, but a sheen has recently been reported and is under investigation by Department of Environmental Conservation Spills staff.”

Besides runoff from firefighters battling the blaze, other potential environmental threats from tire fires like the one in Lockport include:

• Air pollution from acrid, black smoke resulting from the burning tires that can put volatile organic compounds and other chemicals like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the air, at the same time sucking oxygen out of it.

• An “oily discharge” created from melting tires that can seep into nearby creeks, streams and groundwater.

A special report by the U.S. Fire Administration states that tire fires fuel themselves on the flammable oil in the tires.

They’re “environmentally contaminating” and hard to put out, according to the fire administration – a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s going to burn like an oil tanker, because that’s what it is,” said Larry McKenna, an administration fire protection engineer.

McKenna said hollow spaces between the tires provides the perfect mix of air to keep the fire raging. And, rubber burns especially hot.

“It’s hard to get water to the source of the fire because of the configuration of the tires,” McKenna said.

Tire fires, according to the federal agency, “frequently become major hazardous materials incidents affecting entire communities, often requiring neighborhood evacuations and protracted fire operations. These fires threaten pollution of the air, waterways and water table.”

Helen Domske of New York Sea Grant said it’s particularly important to contain the sites of burning tires, especially large fires like the one in Lockport.

“Tires are made from petrochemicals including benzene, styrene and butadiene,” Domske said. “Those are suspected carcinogens.”

In Lockport, the fire department was pumping water from the nearby Erie Canal to battle the blaze, Stapleton said.

Stapleton said favorable weather conditions Thursday also helped lift and disperse much of the smoke from the burning tires.

“We’re seeing it’s going way up into the atmosphere, which is what we want it to do,” Stapleton said. “It’s not hovering around.”

It’s not unusual for tire fires to burn uncontrollably for hours or days.

“Tires burn with a higher per-pound heat output than most coal, and the high heat production of tire rubber makes extinguishment very difficult,” the fire administration report states.

In 1995, a massive tire fire on a Chautauqua County hillside burned for a week, consuming at least a million tires over several acres.

A DEC report shows that the blaze in the town of Charlotte remains the second-largest tire fire statewide in nearly three decades.


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