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 in a wood-wheeled wagon over bare rock was probably a good way to grind vertebrae into powder. Thank god for rubber…good old shock-absorbing rubber. Nothing beats rubber.

A proper rubber tire requires vulcanized rubber, which has been heated and suffused with sulfur. Non-vulcanized rubber will either melt into a sticky good or crumble to bits, depending on the temperature; vulcanized rubber holds its shape. Charles Goodyear cracked that code in the 1840s, then spent the rest of his life embroiled in patent disputes before dying a pauper. The Goodyear tire company is named for him, but was not founded until four decades after his death. That’s a metaphor for something, I’m just not sure what.

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.

The problem with tires: 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 give 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; ejecta so thick it blocks out the sun.

Tire fires are extremely hazardous and almost impossible to extinguish; tires are “essentially solidified gasoline,” which is comforting to think about. A tire fire in Virginia lasted for nine months before being extinguished; decontaminating the land took 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 liquified 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 have read a good portion of the post-apocalyptic fiction out there, and in my opinion, 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, but because tires have such low thermal conductivity, 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 worthless 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.

springfield-tire-fire

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s