Aerial views of the tire dump near Westley shows the magnitude of the pollution concern. - Photo by Russ Richards, retired Stanislaus County fire warden.

Aerial views of the tire dump near Westley shows the magnitude of the pollution concern.

Photo by Russ Richards, retired Stanislaus County fire warden.

Environmental experts predicted that a massive fire sweeping through seven million used tires stored in a canyon near Westley, CA, would take a year to extinguish. Williams Fire & Hazard Control proved them wrong by 338 days.

The Williams firefighters even beat CEO Dwight Williams' own 60-day estimate on extinguishment by almost half. But that doesn't mean it was easy.

"Dwight told a reporter that if someone had taken him from his bed in the middle of the night blindfolded to carry him to the canyon and then removed the blindfold, he'd think he'd died and gone to hell," said Randy Williams, executive vice president of Williams F&HC and sister of Dwight.

Randy Williams, in charge of logistics for Williams F&HC, conducted a workshop on the Westley tire fire at the 15th annual Industrial Fire World Conference and Exposition in April in Houston.

The Westley tire dump is the largest in California, a state notorious for huge tire fires. Past major tire dump fire occurred at Panoche in 1996 and in Tracy, only 20 miles away, in 1998. In Tracy, the decision was made to let the fire burn itself out. Almost a year later, that fire was still smoldering.

At the Westley site, the 25-acre dump provides fuel for a recycling plant that burned tires to create and sell electricity. Environmental concerns about the site were nothing new. Court action attempting to force a cleanup stretched back more than 10 years. State authorities issued a clean-up order only months earlier.

"By the time the fire began half of the tires had been removed and another six million burned at the energy facility," Williams said. More than seven million tires were left at the site.

That still left enough to create environmental havoc for the surrounding San Joaquin Valley. On Sept. 21, 1999, a lightning strike ignited the tires, releasing benzene-laden black smoke so thick that it brought area traffic to a halt.

The burning power plant on the edge of the dump is visible. - Photo by Russ Richards, retired Stanislaus County fire warden.

The burning power plant on the edge of the dump is visible.

Photo by Russ Richards, retired Stanislaus County fire warden.

In Westley, residents were asked to stay inside with their air conditioning off. Children and elderly people with severe respiratory problems required hospitalization. In the following weeks, EPA air monitoring dictated whether schools would open. Even when classes were held, students were not allowed outdoors for recess. All sports activities were cancelled until further notice, Randy Williams said.

"Basically, peoples' lives came to a standstill because of this tire fire."

Economic impact was almost immediate. In a region rich in agriculture, all fruits and vegetables now had to be washed before it could be sold. It became common to see large amounts of produce dumped by farmers beside the roads because it cost too much to clean it.

County firefighters found themselves overwhelmed by the disaster. Radiant heat soon reached 2,000 degrees F, triggering streams of burning oily waste running downhill as it was released by the tires. Direct water drops from Coast Guard helicopters proved unsuccessful. With limited water available at the site, firefighters could only keep the blaze contained to the already affected areas of the dump.

"They almost managed to extinguish the oil fire twice but ran out of water and foam and didn't have the ability to replenish supplies as quickly as they needed," Williams said.

Still, the oil fire grew worse. Numerous state and federal agencies became involved, including the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Strike Force Team. Each new agency faced the same question — "How do we put this fire out?"

"Luckily, every time they called an agency our name was brought up," Williams said.

On Sept. 29, Dwight Williams met with EPA officials and IT Group of Pennsylvania, the contractor responsible for environmental cleanup. Initially, Williams F&HC was asked to handle the oil fire portion of the operation. At that time, officials were still considering whether to let the tire burn itself out, al la Tracy.

Utilizing the Williams' Daspit Tool, a monitor designed to clamp onto the side of storage tanks, and a specially designed stand, Williams F&HC was able to extinguish the bulk of the burning oil in one day, with complete extinguishment by day two. 3M Light Water ATC foam was used to put out the pool of burning oil.

Meanwhile, public pressure mounted in concern that some attempt be made to deal with the burning tires. Suggestions made at the local citizen's meetings provided endless amusement.

"They had some wonderful ideas," Williams said. "They wanted to fill cargo planes with cement and drop it on the fires. Another guy wanted to bring a tanker of liquid nitrogen in, back it up to the top of a slope and drop it on the fire. He actually showed up at the front gate with a tanker full of liquid nitrogen." Officials decided not to let him try.

After their success with the oil fire, Williams F&HC was asked to tackle the tire fire. But even the Williams people were not certain of being able to completely conquer the blaze. Of concern was an area where tires were piled against the canyon wall as high as a 10-story building.

"We weren't really sure it would be safe to put our people in a position where that wall of fire might come down on them," Williams said. "Still, the Williams crew was certain they could significantly reduce the fire if not completely extinguish it."

The Williams plan called for the team to construct a dirt road over the burning tires to reach the box canyon's steeper grades. From there they could get up onto the banks to eliminate the fires on the top of the peaks. Once those were extinguished, the team would be able to dig up the still burning tires under the road and extinguish them as well.

Burning tires glow in a mammoth dump from which a power plant draws fuel. - Photo by Russ Richards, retired Stanislaus County fire warden.

Burning tires glow in a mammoth dump from which a power plant draws fuel.

Photo by Russ Richards, retired Stanislaus County fire warden.

Because of the lack of water, the biggest of Williams F&HC's famed "Big Gun" nozzles were left at home. Instead, the weapons of choice would be the 2,000 gpm Hired Guns and the smaller Daspit Tools. The monitors were used to protect radio-equipped closed-cab track hoes moving into the burning tire piles where flames ran as deep as eight feet below the surface. It was feared that the fire might reach as deep as 40 feet.

"These were our own operators," Williams said. "When we work a fire like this we bring in our own heavy equipment operators because there has to be a tremendous amount of trust. The operator can't see because of the smoke. He's got fireballs around him. He's got to know that those guys are going to cover him and keep him cool."

Often the fireballs were triggered by magnesium rims mixed with the discarded tires. Operating on the surface of this rubbery landscape was difficult at the best of times. Adding to the handicap was large quantities of wire left after steel belted tires burned. Mechanics worked overnight to cut the loose wire off the heavy equipment, as well as replace burnt electrical wiring.

"We had one backhoe operator step out of his cab at the end of the day, get his foot hung in a piece of wire and end up hanging off the back hoe upside down," Williams said.

When steam replaced the black smoke rising from the tires, the firefighters knew they had gained control, Williams said. Aside from water, the firefighters made use of 3M LightWater Structural Fire Fighting Foam (SFFF). The Williams crew had only used SFFF once before, at a Lufkin, Texas, paper "sludge' fire that was in progress when the Westley call came in.

"The new structural foam worked incredibly well on these fires," Williams said. "The new 3M SFFF gave us the ability to go in at a half percent and use a lot less water, which was kind of a precious resource."

As much as it was possible a routine was established. As the fires were extinguished, the tires would be scooped up and placed in a special slurry to cool, then laid out in the sun until IT Group could remove them.

"Every once in a while, the driver would get a little bit overenthusiastic and take off with some tire that hadn't been slurried yet," Williams said. "So then there would be another fire erupting where they were putting them with the ones that had already been put out."

Another problem with overenthusiasm involved the driver of a water truck used to keep the dust down on the road. Having spotted an area that was heating up, the driver headed in that direction to dump his water tank and put it out. On the way, the truck slid off the road and into the smoldering tires. Soon flames were rising over the cab.

"So we had to shut all the operations down, put out the fire on the water truck and get it out of there, then go back to fighting the fire again," Williams said. "It wouldn't have been so bad but the driver did it twice."

Oil coming off the burning tires continued to be a problem. Williams F&HC set up a system where the oily waste could be recycled, and the scarce water reclaimed.

"We built two culverts," Williams said. "As the oil went through the culvert, it extinguished itself if any fire was present. A monitoring station was set up in case anything did get through that had not been extinguished, so we did not have re-ignition."

At the end of the culverts, the Williams crew dug ponds to capture the oil for recycling. It was vacuumed off and the remaining water pumped up to the top of the canyon to the energy plant. An estimated 250,000 gallons of oil was recovered from the burning tires.

Within four days, the Williams firefighters had eliminated most of the black smoke rising from the tire fire. Still, the grind to complete the job would continue seven days a week for a total of 27 days. Supplementing the Williams crew of 10 firefighters and two heavy equipment operators were local firefighters who stood watch overnight to keep the fire from spreading back into areas already extinguished.

Finally, on Oct. 28, the fire was officially declared history. The battle consumed more than 21,000 gallons of ATC and more than 15,800 gallons of SFFF. Stanislaus County Fire Warden Russ Richards estimated the cost of fighting the fire at $2.4 million. The cost of environmental cleanup is estimated at many millions more.

For the Williams firefighters, battling an extended fire such as a tire or mine fire can be an endurance test.

"When you get a big tank fire you get out there, work, work, work, maybe as long as 72 hours with no sleep," Williams said. "But when the dragon is dead, everybody's happy and you go home. It's a beautiful thing. This fire at Westley was hard because you'd work all day long and come back the next day and it was still there. One of the biggest challenges in this type of firefighting is to keep the morale of your people up."

Lessons Learned

  • Political resolve to deal firmly and directly with the emergency at hand was apparent among public officials in Westley. This is not always the case. Without that resolve, difficult emergency operations can become almost intolerable.
  • Cooperation with local firefighters was essential here. Although Williams F&HC brought in many of its own specialists, there was still plenty of work left over for local emergency responders. Nobody gets a vacation just because a contractor is hired.
  • Clearly, firefighters working in an environment where they have to worry about landslides, uh, tireslides are not working from a pre-plan. If ever a facility needed to be thoroughly pre-planned and operated in a way to ensure quick, effective emergency action, this was it.

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.