Fire suppression project scheduled for next week
Justino Aguila / SF Chronicle 30nov00
A massive tire fire that started in 1998 still smolders south of Tracy. Rusted, rubberless wheels litter the landscape at the site. Chronicle photo by Paul Chinn
After more than two years, the smoke still rises from the huge dark pit where 7 million illegally dumped tires have been burning.
State officials said yesterday they may finally be able to put out what's left of the fire -- now just a mass of smoldering rubber.
Next week authorities will try to put an end to one of the largest tire- dump fires in the nation's history.
A fire chief once compared the burning dump site to the result of an "atomic bomb attack."
But what was once a huge pile of tires has been reduced to a vast charcoal- black hole laden with ashes and stacks of rusty steel tire wires over cracked, crusty soil.
In three sections of the wide, 20-acre pit once used to store gravel, smoke still seeps out. But otherwise the site, which once drew national media attention, was quiet Wednesday.
"It was a pretty dynamic little fire," said Todd Thalhamer, an engineer for the California Integrated Waste Management Board, which is part of the California Environmental Protection Agency. "It was an illegal tire site."
It started Aug. 7, 1998, after a dump employee reportedly caused a spark while clearing weeds. Hundreds of firefighters battled plumes of smoke and flames that shot 70 feet into the air.
Firefighters contained the blaze from spreading outside the dump but, despite months of effort, could not stop the huge mass of tires from burning.
Officials eventually determined it was better to let the tires burn in order to avoid groundwater contamination. Watering the location could have led to potentially hazardous liquid waste from the mix of water and pyrolytic oil, which was left behind from burning tires.
The dump belonged to the late Silas F. Royster, who for years kept anyone from entering his property, state officials said. His family now owns the land,
according to Chris Peck with the California EPA, who is also working with the Tracy Fire Department, San Joaquin County Public Health Services, San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Management District and California Resources Board.
Even two years after the initial fire, said Mark Mehring of the Tracy Fire Department, there are still calls from people complaining about the stench of burning rubber.
"We still probably get a call every three weeks," Mehring said. "I'm not aware of anybody getting sick. This is a sparsely populated area."
By Monday, officials will begin preparing the site for "fire suppression," a nearly weeklong project that will cost about $365,000.
During the procedure, ash pits will be moved and stabilized so particles don't spread through the air. Then workers will excavate the remaining burning debris from the tire piles and extinguish the fire with foam and water.
Even though next week's effort will be done in about five days, EPA officials said, it will be part of a longer process to clean up the pit.
Officials hope to complete the project by summer after they determine the best way to get rid of the debris and avoid spreading toxins.
Large amounts of zinc and lead may remain in the pit, Peck said. There will be tests to determine what other toxics exist in the debris.
The cleanup, which will cost about $365,000, is being funded by a state law that increases each tire fee from 25 cents to $1. Eventually, Peck said, attempts to collect expenses from the cleanup will be sought from the Royster estate.
"We're happy that this is going to get cleaned up," said Doug Wilson, a supervisor with the San Joaquin County Public Health Services. "It was a big mess."
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