The great Everett tire fire, 25 years later

EVERETT — It’s not clear who, exactly, began stockpiling worn-out tires on the east edge of town.

What’s known is that some enterprising person had the bright idea to charge 25 cents to haul away bald tires on rented land that used to be the city’s landfill. He apparently planned to sell the tires for industrial boiler fuel.

By 1984, as many as 4 million tires had been piled in a massive heap on the 10-acre site along the Snohomish River.

As it grew, people started calling it Mount Firestone.

Twenty-five years ago today, someone put a flame to Mount Firestone.

That day, the fire chief thought they’d have it out by the end of the day — a week, tops.

It smoldered for months.

The tire fire’s legacy lasted much longer. It would take another two decades and millions of dollars to clean up. The health and environmental effects proved harder to measure, although several agencies studied it. Lawsuits ensued.

The tire fire didn’t do Everett’s image any favors either. That gargantuan mountain of flaming tires seemed made for TV and the story quickly went national. The city of smokestacks became the city with the stinking, fire-belching tire volcano.

“It was such a strange thing,” said Jack O’Donnell, a longtime resident and Everett history buff. “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.”

That morning, O’Donnell had gotten up before sunrise to go for a jog.

He wasn’t long into his run when he realized something was wrong. At the corner of Broadway and Hewitt Avenue, he stopped to wipe a hand across his brow and found it covered with black soot. He looked down and saw his jogging suit covered too. It became so difficult to breathe, he turned around and walked home.

Officials later surmised the fire was started by partying teens sometime early that morning. No one was ever caught. It wasn’t the first time the pile had caught fire. It had burned briefly the year before. The second fire would prove far more troublesome.

By daybreak, people on the north end of town were waking up to a world covered with a grimy coat of soot. A tower of inky black smoke billowed from the edge of town. The smoke blew first southward, then northeast. The smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun.

The Snohomish Health District issued an advisory warning to people with chronic lung conditions to stay indoors. North Middle School briefly closed.

At Mount Firestone, firefighters struggled to deal with a particularly dangerous fire no one in Everett had much familiarity fighting, said Ken Dammand, then a 36-year-old EMT with the Everett Fire Department.

Tire fires are exceptionally hard to fight. Modern tires are essentially solidified gasoline, said Dammand, who is now a battalion chief. The round shape makes it nearly impossible to put out a flame. Blast one portion of the tire with water, and the fire moves around the circle and keeps burning.

“When you’ve got millions of tires, it’s impossible,” he said. “The devil himself couldn’t get them out.”

Firefighters fought the massive fire with an aggressive attack. No hydrants were nearby so firefighters dragged hoses over hundreds of yards and jumbled tire heaps to get to the flames, Dammand said.

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.

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.

After two days of firefighters blasting the fire with 2,000 gallons of water a minute, the Department of Ecology stepped in and ordered the city to shut off the hoses. Untold pounds of toxic matter were flushing straight into the nearby Snohomish River.

Those same toxins were also clouding the air.

Although firefighters couldn’t fight the fire, they still monitored it 24 hours a day for weeks, Dammond said. All the firefighters took shifts sitting near the fire, trying to park fire engines and aid cars upwind of the acrid smoke.

One firefighter Dammond regularly sat watch with died a decade later of brain cancer.

“It had every methyl-ethyl bad news stuff in it,” he said. “The whole town was just black.”

People flooded the phone lines at local fire stations, complaining or offering solutions for putting out the fire. Someone suggested tons of ice cubes. Another person thought snow from the mountains could be trucked in.

In the end, the city would just have to wait for the fire to burn itself out.

People knew breathing in that toxic stew couldn’t be good, but there was nothing to be done but get through it, Everett historian David Dilgard said.

“It was as if Godzilla showed up in the back yard,” he said. “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.”

It was almost as if Everett had its own made-for-TV volcanic eruption, he said.

A quarter-century later, what’s to become of the former Mount Firestone?

The site is slated to be home to a swanky riverside development. A San Diego developer plans to build upscale condos and shops.

That’s now on a slowed-down timetable because of another disaster Everett is waiting out: the recession.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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