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A Critical Assessment

On February 12, 1990, a tire dump fire erupted in Hagersville, Ontario. It is estimated as few as 3,000,000 and as many as 10,000,000 tires burned for 17 days before being extinguished, despite predictions that the fire would burn for months. In April, 1990, more than 50,000 tires burned at Ste-Anne des Plaines. That fire was quickly brought under control by sand. On May 16, 1990, yet another tire dump fire erupted, this time at St-Amable, Quebec. It is estimated that virtually all of the 10,000,000 tires stored at this facility burned for approximately 5 days before being extinguished. It was the fourth time a fire had burned as the St-Amable tire dump.

The Media had a great time relating the day-to-day events as these fires burned. But in retrospect, were the fires as significant as they first appeared to be?

First, let us examine tires, as a fuel source. Tires are make up of three components: synthetic rubber, fabric, and steel. The synthetic rubber is composed of various hydrocarbon compounds such as styrene. The fabric is normally a synthetic such as nylon. The third component, the reinforcing steel, is non-combustible.

The hydrocarbons are an excellent fuel. They contain a large quantity of potential energy in their molecular structure. Fire, which is an oxidation reaction, releases this energy in the form of heat and light.

In order to start this oxidation reaction, a strong ignition source is required. Tires are chemically stable, and are not subject to spontaneous heating, or ignition by mechanical forces. The most reliable ignition source is normally regarded to be an open flame. Open flame is quite capable of igniting a rubber tire. As we now know, five teenagers, who tried the open flame technique, are now under arrest.

Although rubber ties are difficult to ignite, once ignition has occurred, the fire grows rapidly. The hydrocarbon fuel produces large quantities of heat in a short period of time.

Manual fire suppression is difficult due to the intense heat of the fire, and the configuration of the tires. Fire burning on the inside of the tires is difficult to extinguish by the application of water, since the water runs off the tires without ever getting to the seat of the fire. A storage configuration of millions of tires, piled up in a field, makes extinguishment that much more difficult.

The firefighters who extinguished this blaze deserve the heartiest of congratulations. They devised a labour-intensive, methodical approach to extinguishment, and they stuck with it through severe cold temperatures, and terrible working conditions.

Next, we should consider why we have mountains of old tires stored in farmers' fields. Tires do not behave well in land fill sites. The tires tend to float in the land fills, and come to the surface over time. While a better means of disposal or recycling is being developed, the interim solution is to store these tires.

In face, a couple of solutions are already available. The tires can be burned in kilns at cement plants, to supplement the kiln fuel. As described above, the tires are a tremendous fuel, and it seems a waste not of reclaim the energy from these tires.

Legitimate tire recyclers are working in the province. These recyclers cut up the tires, process them to break them down into the three basic components, and then recycle the crumb rubber, the reinforcing steel, and the fabric. The technology required for this processing is new, and this recycling industry is still in its infancy.

Government bodies, who have been collecting a special tax on tires, could be very helpful in alleviating the problems, by funding research and development programs for the recyclers, and by approving the application by cement plants to incinerate waste tires in their kilns.

Finally, we should look at the after effects of the Hagersville fire. In effect, we had a large bonfire in a field. The material which was burned was garbage, so there was no property damage as a result of the blaze. The only negative effects, as a result of the fire, were environmental.

Large quantities of dense black smoke were produced by the fire. Recent reports indicate that this smoke did not create significant air pollution beyond the immediate area of the fire.

The soil below the fire was exposed to high temperatures. Soil exposed to fire will not support vegetation for a period of time.

The liquid run-off soaked into the ground, and contaminated the ground water aquifer in the area. This is an isolated problem, which will require an infusion of capital to solve.

In summary, it looks as though the spectacular Hagersville fire was not as significant an event as the media portrayed it. A little time, and a chunk of cash, should repair the environmental damage. People outside Hagersville are already forgetting the fire, in favour of other current events.

If we look for the silver lining, the publicity from this fire may push government officials into taking positive steps forward, and establish new energy from waste incineration facilities within the province to solve our long term garbage disposal problems.

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