SACRAMENTO — On a hot, windy day last August, a tiny spark from a farm machine set fire to the dry grass along the edge of a huge tire pile near the town of Tracy. Within minutes, 7 million discarded tires were ablaze and a cloud of putrid smoke enveloped a vast agricultural area in the San Joaquin Valley.
"It was like a storm was coming in. I had never seen anything like it," recalled Casey Foley, who was eight miles away in Manteca when the fire started. "When I got up close it looked like the crater of a volcano, black and crispy piles of rubber with flames spewing out."
Now, eight months later, the fire is still burning, propelling itself into the record books as one of the nation's longest and largest tire blazes. But its impact has reached much further than the farming belt it blanketed for months with stinking smoke.
In Sacramento, it has become a major blight on the otherwise good scorecard of a state agency, the Integrated Waste Management Board. And in doing so, it has become the catalyst for change in California's system for disposing of worn-out tires.
For consumers, the changes ultimately will mean higher prices. A new tire will cost more, with the increase used to pay for the disposal of the old baldy it is replacing.
"I think that fire is the poster child for why we need to do a better job with tire issues," said state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey).
A gigantic accumulation of discarded tires has been one of the legacies of California's love affair with the automobile.
In 1989, the state established a waste tire program under the auspices of the Integrated Waste Management Board, which governs landfills. The program's objective was to clean up illegal tire piles, reduce the number of tires dumped in landfills and help create markets for the reuse of scrap tires.
The prime reason for the program was fires. The millions and millions of tires haphazardly piled in California canyons, quarries and remote fields were highly susceptible to fire. A tire fire is nearly impossible to put out, and the properties of rubber are such that, once ignited, it can burn indefinitely.
The dangers of a tire fire cited by health officials are the clouds of acrid smoke, full of hydrocarbons, benzene and other pollutants, that drift on the wind. Foley, an environmental health inspector for the San Joaquin County health department, said anyone with breathing problems who lived near the Tracy fire was told for months to stay indoors.
"[The Tracy fire] is a black eye," said Dan Eaton, the waste board's chairman. "I think it was a wake-up call, and it was perhaps not the board's nor California's best day."
The fire marred what had been a respectable record for the board. Since California's program began, the state's stockpile of old tires--held in heaping scrap piles--has been cut from 45 million in 1990 to 15 million today. The number of scrap tires going to landfills has been reduced too.
Of the tires discarded in 1990, 66% went to landfills. In 1997, only 40% of the tires scrapped by car owners went to landfills. Only landfills with state permits can accept old tires.
Yet for a state that produces more scrap tires each year--30 million--than any other, board members say California still has too many that are either stockpiled in illegal dumps or being sent to landfills.
"Illegal tire piles are . . . an environmental disaster waiting to happen," said board member Steven Jones. "We've got to get those tires taken care of."
Directed by the Legislature to examine its tire program, the board's staff recently completed an evaluation--with help from an independent consultant, the Vitetta Group--that pinpointed weaknesses and recommended major changes. The board is expected to put its own imprint on the report at an April 27 meeting, before forwarding it to lawmakers.
Written by staff member Byron Fitzgerald, the report found:
* The 25-cent-per-tire disposal fee charged consumers to pay for the tire program is one of the lowest in the nation and has not produced enough money to finance enforcement activities and the cleanup of illegal piles. Also, the fee is not collected for truck and automobile tires purchased wholesale; it is levied only at the retail level.
The report recommends tripling the fee.
* There are still 34 large, illegal tire piles located throughout the state. The study suggests the board set a goal of cleaning them up within three years.
One impact of the program's inadequate funding, the report says, has been the "slow pace of cleaning up illegal tire piles, resulting in greater public exposure to the dangers associated with large tire fires."
* The state lacks key enforcement tools, particularly the ability to inspect tire piles on private property.