a brief history of tire fires

I read once that shoulder-deep ruts were gouged into the ground at points along the Oregon trail. I doubt that’s true, but riding a wood-wheeled wagon over bare rock was probably a good way to grind one’s vertebrae into powder. Luckily we now have good old shock-absorbing rubber tires.

The air-filled pneumatic rubber tire was invented by either Robert Thomson (a Scotsman) or John Dunlop (an Irisher), depending on whom you believe (recall the history of multiple inventions). Probably also some credit goes to our nameless Neolithic forebears that invented the wheel, and the Olmec—literally “rubber people”—who first discovered rubber’s peculiar elastic utility.

On its own, rubber isn’t very stable. At high temperatures, it melts into a sticky goo. At low temperatures, it crumbles to bits. The solution to this is vulcanized rubber, which is rubber that has been heated and suffused with sulfur. Vulcanized rubber retains its elasticity and structure. Charles Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize rubber in the 1840s, which was the key to development of modern rubber tires. He then spent the rest of his life embroiled in patent disputes before dying a pauper; four decades after his death the Goodyear tire company was named for him. That’s a metaphor something, I’m just not sure what.

The problem with tires is that they’re toxic and non-biodegradable. There’s little use for repurposed tires: you can make “crumb rubber,” the little pellets that soften playground dirt and artificial turf, or you can donate truck tires to a crossfit gym so people can flip them over for a solid core workout. Unfortunately, America produces 300+ million waste tires annually, which according to an Elon Musk whitepaper is enough to cover the entire surface of Jupiter with artificial turf and crossfit gyms when his interplanetary WarpLoop is completed.

Most dead tires are dumped, often illegally, and often in piles that eventually grow large enough to exert their own gravitational pull. Residents of one Washington town referred to their ever-expanding tire dump as “Mount Firestone.” Watching a classic tire mountain develop is a rare treat for the vigilant naturalist, like seeing a volcanic eruption give birth to new islands, spotting the Pacific’s floating garbage patch, or being dismembered and consumed piecemeal by a yeti.

Once mature, tire mountains have a tendency to self-combust. The tire fire: an oleaginous, shifting heap of congealed volatile chemicals, protuberant and haphazardly conjoined like a Soviet-era xenografting experiment gone wrong, its constituent parts discarded as trash yet, golem-like, apparently indestructible; a mindlessly destructive pyre beneath an entropic orange crown, fuelled by its own foulness and indiscriminately spewing toxic gases.

Tire fires are extremely hazardous and almost impossible to extinguish, since tires are “essentially solidified gasoline,” which is a comforting thought. A tire fire in Virginia lasted for nine months before being extinguished; decontaminating the land took another nineteen years. It was a Superfund site. The aforementioned Mount Firestone went up in flames in 1984; it burned for months and bedeviled firefighters:

Firefighters tried cutting a fire break into Mount Firestone, but the pile of tires had liquefied in many spots, and then reformed into 8-foot thick mats of black glop…Pent-up methane gas shot from the pile like 30-foot-high blasts from a blowtorch. The updrafts were so strong they picked up flaming tires and hurtled them hundreds of feet in the air.

Parts of I-95 in Philadelphia were closed for six months after/during a tire fire in an underpass. A California tire fire burned for over two years before being brought under control. Runoff from a different fire went into a stream which also caught fire. Best of all is a Welsh tire fire that burned for at least 15 years. I’ve read a goodly portion of the post-apocalyptic fiction out there, and tire fires are vastly underrepresented.

You can try to starve a tire fire, with dirt or foam or by not giving it the validation it desperately craves. However, tires have such low thermal conductivity that the fire is likely to re-ignite, whence it continues disgorging its fetid payload of carbon monoxide, cyanide, sulfur dioxide*, and various other substances known to the state of California to cause cancer. It feels futile: even when you think you’ve starved it, pyrolysis—high-temperature anaerobic breakdown—may continue apace, decomposing those discarded hunks of rubber and chemical engineering into their component elements and returning them to the earth, leaving soil and groundwater contaminated by lead, arsenic, and the same industrial byproducts/teratogens that brought the phrase “cancer cluster” into common parlance.

*Brief aside about sulfur: In olden days, sulfur deposits were collected, then set in kilns along a sloping hillside. Pulverized sulfur was sprinkled on them and ignited, incinerating impurities and allowing the pure sulfur to roll downhill. When surface sulfur was used up, they began mining it from, more or less, volcanoes. Booker T. Washington visited a sulfur mine and said “I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulphur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.” This is a perhaps more literal statement than even intended, considering that enslaved children were in a volcano, toting 100-pound baskets of literal brimstone to the surface in total darkness. Unrelatedly, did you know that when burned, elemental sulfur turns into a blood-red liquid?

Let us remain vigilant for tire fires, and bulldoze them into a fucking sinkhole as soon as possible.



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