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The Everett Tire Fire begins on September 24, 1984.
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On September 24, 1984, four million used tires -- stored for recycling in Everett -- begin burning. Although fire officials expect to extinguish the blaze by day's end, it is too difficult to contain, and "Mount Firestone" makes national news as it continues to burn, smolder, and pollute until May 1985.
Good Plans Gone Bad
Sometime in 1975, Rubber Resources Inc. leased Everett’s old city landfill at 38th Street and the Snohomish River and began collecting used tires for recycling. Scott Paper Company purchased some of these tires, using them for hog fuel to burn their leftover wood waste. The environmental dangers of this process were soon apparent; high amounts of waste zinc and other toxins were released from the burning tires. Scott Paper abandoned the method, Rubber Resources soon went bankrupt, and the City of Everett inherited a huge pile of tires.
At first the tires were considered an asset, and it was hoped that they could be sold for recycling into boiler fuel. But companies weren’t buying; instead, they were charging for tire removal. While a lucrative solution was sought, tires continued to stack up, and by 1984 between 2.5 and 4 million tires had accumulated on the 10-acre landfill site. Locals dubbed the pile “Mount Firestone” and considered it both a joke and an eyesore.
Fair warning came in 1983 when the pile was ignited, possibly by an arsonist, but firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze. The city was close to making a deal with a Los Angeles import-export dealer that would have netted Everett 15 cents a tire when, on September 24, 1984, fire again was discovered in the tire pile. This time it would prove to be serious business.
A Dark Day for Everett
A huge tower of black smoke rose from the fire and began moving southward, but the soot settled all over Everett, and by afternoon a dense black cloud blocked out the sun in most of the city. Surprised residents woke to a sootfall. Local historian Jack O’Donnell recalls leaving his house at 33rd and Grand for his usual morning jog. The sidewalks were black and soot was everywhere. He struggled to breathe and realized his clothes, as well as his forehead, were covered with black soot. Looking back 25 years later, he told the press,
"The year was 1984 and I don’t think George Orwell could have dreamed up anything quite as strange as a big pile of tires on fire" (Daily Herald, September 24, 2009).
North Middle School at 2514 Rainier Avenue closed for the day and the media warned residents to stay indoors if possible. The Everett Fire Department expected to put out the fire by the end of the day.
Fighting the Blaze
But extinguishing the tire fire proved impossible. Ken Dammand -- now battalion chief -- was a young EMT with the Everett Fire Department at that time and explained the problems. Tires are basically solidified gasoline and their circular shape means that the fire, when attacked at one point, jumps around in the circle. Damman recalled:
“By mid morning the fire had grown hotter and more dangerous. 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” (Daily Herald, September 24, 2009).
Firemen tried cutting a firebreak into the pile but many of the tires had liquefied and were now just black glop. Two thousand gallons of water a minute were pumped on the fire, but by the second day the Department of Ecology ordered the city to stop because the runoff was polluting the nearby Snohomish River. The fire department had another worry: If they brought in heavy firefighting equipment, the weight might break through the earth cap that had been placed over the old garbage landfill site, thus making the burn potential even greater.
For the fire’s duration -- it would last 7 months -- city residents were exposed to deadly toxins, but it was the firefighters who suffered most from close exposure. The fire continued to rage and belch smoke for several days, making national headlines. Then the flames subsided, but the fire smoldered for months. In the end, the city simply had to let the blaze burn itself out.
The City Copes
Fire Department phone lines were kept busy with both complaints and suggestions for ending the fire. One person recommended bringing in mountain snow to douse the blaze. Mostly residents just cleaned their sooty carpets and clothes and attempted to stay upwind from the continuing smoke. Health warnings were issued to those with lung problems, and they were told to stay indoors until the worst was over. As historian David Dilgard of the Everett Public Library expressed it,
“It was as if Godzilla showed up in the back yard. He’s really nasty and he stomps on people and eats a few people but there’s nothing anybody can do about it. You just don’t go out there” (Daily Herald, September 24, 2009).
Who started the fire? No one knew. A reward of $5,000 was posted by the city to find a possible arsonist but no suspect was found.
City officials needed a solution. Eventually they would deal with site cleanup, but the first step was tire removal. After the burn, 272,000 tires remained. By November 1984 the City of Everett had contracted with the Oregon firm, Waste By-Products, to take the tires at a cost of about $97,000. They were recycled for use as fuel, asphalt paving, and running tracks. Mount Firestone was leaving, never to return, but it was August 1985 before the last tires were carted away.
Years of environmental cleanup followed studies of the pollution initiated in 1985.
New Plans/Bad Economy
In 1991 the City of Everett began plans for developing the old landfill site into a riverfront district and the firm of Oliver McMillan was chosen to build it. Plans were beginning when the national economy tumbled in 2008, putting further development on hold.
Today the Everett tire-fire site is green with rye grass. It awaits an uncertain future.
Debra Smith, “Mount Firestone’s Legacy: The Everett Tire Fire, 25 Years Later,” The Daily Herald, September 24, 2009, p. 1; Charles Z. Henderson, The Fire Boys: 100 Years of Everett Firefighting History (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co., 1992); Ned Carrick and Jim Muhlstein, “It’s a Dark Day in Everett as Tires Burn,” The Herald, September 24, 1984, p. 1; Larry Hanson and Louis Wein editorial, “The Origin of a Tire Fire,” Ibid., October 7, 1984; “EPA Order Turns Off the Hoses at Everett’s Tire Fire,” Ibid., September 26, 1984, p. 1; “Everett Quits Trying to Douse Big Tire Fire, Under Orders from EPA,” Ibid., September 25, 1984, p. 1; Ned Carrick, “The Mountain Leaving, Never to Grow Again,” Ibid., November 25, 1984, p. 3-A; Allan May,“Last Tires Roll Off, but Tread Marks Stick: Everett faces pile of Problems from Smoky Fire as Rubble Mountain Carted Away,” Ibid., August 1, 1985, p. 1; “Stubborn Fire May Be Giving Up,” Everett Herald, March 8, 1985, p. 7-C; “Is It or Isn’t it? Only Tire Fire Knows for Sure -- But ...,” The Herald, April 18, 1985, p. 1.
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Tire fire, Everett, September 24, 1984
Photo by Jim Leo