SYCAMORE, Ohio—Thick pillars of black smoke filled the air over this rural, northwest Ohio town Aug. 21 as the state's largest tire dump ignited, sending flames as high as 200 feet into the air. About 270 firefighters from 19 departments in five counties battled the blaze, located at Kirby's Tire Recycling Inc., 50 miles southeast of Toledo in Wyandot County. The 179th Ohio Air National Guard, based in Mansfield, Ohio, also arrived to help contain the flames.
The fire involved approximately 6 million scrap tires at a site holding an estimated 20 million to 40 million, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said.
The dump reportedly is the nation's third-largest scrap tire pile.
The blaze initially was reported to Sycamore fire officials at 1:47 a.m., said Bob Campo, a lieutenant with the Sycamore Volunteer Fire Department. Firefighters then doused the fire with 7 million gallons of water, but to no avail, Mr. Campo said.
``It seemed at the beginning that anything we attempted was futile,'' he said. ``The water just evaporated because there was so much intense heat. It just turned to steam as fast as you could pump it on there.''
Almost 12 hours after the first call, firefighters used bulldozers and backhoes to create a fire lane wide enough for the Air National Guard to spray foam on the flames, Mr. Campo said. Within two hours, the blaze was contained from spreading to larger piles.
No injuries were reported. However, local health department officials warned residents with respiratory and heart ailments to stay indoors, the Ohio EPA spokeswoman said. The EPA currently is monitoring air samples for particulate content.
Plumes of heavy smoke could be seen as far as the state capital, Columbus, 70 miles south of Sycamore.
The state fire marshal and the Wyandot County Sheriff's Department are investigating the cause of the blaze, which officials suspect could be arson.
At press time Aug. 26, 70 percent of the pile was covered by sand, but some flames and smoke still were visible. The U.S. EPA hired a Kentucky contractor to cover the blaze. The agency's strategy is to cover the piles with sand, then smother them with clay to cut off all oxygen sources, the Ohio EPA spokeswoman said.
Tire fires are notorious for burning long after the initial flare-up. EPA officials in California still are waiting for a tire fire at S.F. Royster's Tire Co. in Tracy, Calif., to burn out—more than a year after it started—before they clean up that site.
The Kirby tire fire has posed a potential environmental threat to the area, said Jeff Steers, assistant chief of the Ohio EPA's northwest district in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Oily run-off from the pile seeped into nearby agricultural drainage tiles leading to the Sycamore Creek, which flows into the Sandusky River. The river supplies water to Tiffin and Fremont, Ohio, larger cities north of Sycamore, and empties into Lake Erie.
U.S. EPA officials built dams and containment ponds to catch much of the run-off. The officials also set up water filtration systems to skim off oil. As of Aug. 24, they had extracted 24,000 gallons of oil from the creek and treated 100,000 gallons of waste water, Mr. Steers said.
The EPA has found no evidence of contamination of public water supplies but has advised residents to avoid Sycamore Creek, the spokeswoman said.
Cleanup costs for the first day of the blaze totaled $250,000, and every day thereafter has cost about $100,000 each, according to U.S. EPA estimates. The Ohio EPA has yet to calculate its total manpower costs for on-site water and air analyses, the spokeswoman said.
When the smoke settles, the cleanup bill probably will cost taxpayers millions of dollars, unless the state finds someone responsible for the blaze who can foot the bill.
Kirby's Tire Recycling has accumulated scrap tires on the site since the 1950s, the spokeswoman said. The dump's late founder, Nobel Kirby, had hoped to turn his collection into a profitable venture.
In 1993, the Wyandot County Health Department attempted to regulate the dump and ordered the Kirby family to remove some tires and create fire lanes, but the Kirbys didn't comply.
When Ohio adopted scrap tire regulations in 1996, the Kirbys applied to become a licensed tire-recycling facility, but the state denied their application due to past violations, the spokeswoman said.
In July 1997, Kirby's Tire Recycling received a court order to remove roughly 5,000 tires per day, but the family argued they couldn't comply without some source of cash flow.
Subsequent monitoring of the site by the Ohio EPA showed the dump's numbers continued to increase, the spokeswoman said. The Kirbys then received a court order in September 1998 to stop accepting tires and an EPA order to clean up the site.
The company halted its tire collection activities, but failed to clean up the piles. As a result, the state hired Central Ohio Contractors Inc. (COC) in Grove City, Ohio, to remove 2.8 million tires from the site for $2.4 million, the spokeswoman said.
``The rationale for the way the state is doing this cleanup is we don't have enough money in the tire account to do it all at once,'' she said. ``Even if we did, I'm not sure the market can absorb all these tires in one big lump.''
The state estimates it will take up to 15 years to abate all the tires from the Kirby dump, she said.
COC had begun removing tires July 3 from an area of the site that wasn't affected by the blaze and will resume its work after the fire is extinguished, the spokeswoman said.
The EPA could not provide further details on the nature of the Kirbys' tire-recycling business. However, there is no recycling facility near the dump, nor is there evidence the family-owned business ever recycled any of the tires it collected, Mr. Steers said.
Kirby's Tire Recycling refused to comment on the fire or its operations.