Fire instructor calls tire fires 'nasty stuff'

A Savoy man who's built his career around preventing and investigating fires says tire fires are "nasty stuff."

"You know you're in for the long run," said Eddie Bain, an instructor at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute in Champaign and a retired Champaign firefighter.

"They are hot fires, they're dangerous and very difficult to manage," said Bain, who never had anything the magnitude of what's going on in Hoopeston during his firefighting days.

Still, he said he worked plenty of vehicle fires where the tires were the last burning things to be put out.

"(Tires on fire) makes it a little more difficult to extinguish. Generally, because there are only four tires on a vehicle, or more on a truck, it's a lot more manageable."

A brake or bearing problem on a wheel or a tire blowout can spark a tire fire that can burn awhile before the driver of a vehicle might even be aware.

Bain said generally, the way to attack a fire in a large amount of tires is to break them up into more manageable piles. Firefighters will spray foam on the tires so that the water has something to adhere to. Otherwise, the water slides off.

"I've seen tires floating in water burning," he said.

Made of rubber, fabric, wire and heavy carbons, along with other chemicals, burning tires can create a serious health hazard, he said.

"For anyone with asthma or any kind of lung problems, it's very difficult," he said.

Firefighters in a volunteer department like Hoopeston are likely faced with limited resources, such as water and manpower, Bain observed.

They would need to be breathing with the aid of heavy portable oxygen tanks to avoid inhaling the thick, acrid smoke.

"They're essentially in a defensive mode. They are not trying to go in and put it out. The building has collapsed. They are in a defensive mode with big master streams. Still, they have to operate in the heat and it's still very demanding," he said.

Bain had a former co-worker, Waddell Hill, who moved to Pierce County, Wash., to become a fire chief.

"They had one of the largest tire recycling facilities in the country. They shipped tires from all over the country. They had acres and acres. They kept so much foam on hand. And they kept the tires in small piles and as separate as they could. They spent a lot of time on prevention because they knew if anything ever got started, it would be hard to manage," he said.

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