An intense fire in a giant pile of tires has been burning for more than a week and may turn into a mammoth ecological disaster, environmental groups are warning. The fire, in a 25-foot-tall pile of 14-million tires, is spewing thick black smoke into the air and leaking oily deposits into rivers and creeks near Hagersville, a town about 50 miles south of Toronto.
The fire covers an area the size of three city blocks.
About 180 firefighters and three waterbomber aircraft have been dousing the blaze with thousands of gallons of water and foam, but the core temperature remained at about 2,000 degrees Tuesday and only about one-tenth of the fire has been put out.
Environmental groups said the fire was already among the worst environmental disasters in North America.
"It is a disaster of huge environmental proportions that will have a major impact on air quality and the quality of surface and ground water," said Jay Palter of Greenpeace.
"Tires are composed of a wide range of chemicals, and when they combust in an uncontrolled manner they release .
. chemicals that have wide-ranging effects," he said.
Trace amounts of benzene, toluene, toxic dioxins and furans have been found in the smoke from the fire, but were not yet at levels to cause "any alarm," according to Glen Grouse, on-site controller for the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Dikes and skimmers have been used to trap about 80,000 gallons of oil that has oozed from the melting tires, but some has escaped into the ground water.
"When each tire melts it produces about one to two gallons of oil," said Mike Lewis, a spokesman for the Ontario's Ministry of Environment. "It's like a 20-million-gallon inland oil spill."
"There is a pancake of oil on the surface of the ground near the fire area, but we can't get close enough to determine how big an area it is or how deep it's going," Grouse said.
Ground tests farther from the fire have found no contamination, but some oil particles have seeped into nearby Sandusk Creek, which drains into Lake Erie.
About 1,700 people have been advised to leave their homes this week, but the Ministry of Environment said the evacuation is only a precaution.
Local government officials have told residents in the immediate area not to drink well water and asked farmers to prevent livestock from drinking from the creek.
Bruce Gougeon, an adviser with the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office, said a major offensive would begin today with an attack by 30 extra men using bulldozers, excavators and waterbombers.
"Because the tires are honeycombed, it's like millions of tiny chimneys all sucking in air and fueling the fire," he said.
The plan is to put the fire out in small sections by bombing it gradually. If the plan works the fire could be out in a month, Gougeon said.
A tire fire in Winchester, W.Va., about half the size of the fire in Hagersville burned for a year from 1983 to 1984, he said.