Massive Tire Fire Near Watertown, Wisconsin Visible for Miles

WATERTOWN, Wis. (AP) -- A tire fire that sent black smoke billowing in a plume visible across southeastern Wisconsin posed new threats Wednesday, as changing weather kept fumes closer to the ground where more people could be affected.

Lt. Doug Ninmann of the Dodge County Sheriff's Department said the high pressure system that sent the smoke aloft after the fire broke out Tuesday was giving way to low pressure, which could mean problems for residents as the fire burns on.

About six acres of Watertown Tire Recycling Co.'s estimated 1 million tires were in flames Tuesday night, a smoldering mound expected to take days to burn itself out.

''Several days is being optimistic,'' said Jennifer Warmke, emergency management deputy director for Dodge County.

No one was injured, and the cause of the blaze had not been determined. About 30 tanker trucks hauled water from nearby Watertown to spray on the fire, and more than a dozen area fire departments were called in to help, Warmke said.

The plant sits just outside Watertown, a city of about 22,000 residents 35 miles west of Milwaukee.

Ninmann said the streams of water worked to slow the fire and reduce the smoke somewhat.

''They've got everything contained,'' he said. ''They're just pouring water on it to keep it contained.''

Ninmann said an inspector from the state Department of Natural Resources was at the plant for an on-site inspection with owner Thomas Springer when the fire started.

''Apparently there had been complaints, violations with the quantity of tires he had there, but I don't know the details on that,'' he said.

Barb Palecek, a DNR solid and hazardous waste specialist, told WISC-TV of Madison she was on the scene at the time. ''I was in his office making a compliance check when someone ran in and yelled, 'fire,''' she said. ''We called 911 and it was mayhem.''

Springer's attorney, Vicki Zick, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the company had exceeded the limits of its state permit, but she said the plant was under industry pressure to accept used tires. ''This is not just a bad citizen not minding the store,'' Zick said. ''This is a company providing a necessary service.''

Tom Madsen, 45, who has a small farm near the tire recycling plant, said tires had been piled on all sides of the facility, raising risks that something like this could happen.

''It couldn't handle that amount of tires,'' he said.

Jason Shearier, 35, who also lives in the rural town of Shields where the plant is located, said local officials have been concerned about the operation.

''The township has been trying to close him down for years,'' he said, adding that he is worried about possible pollution of the water supply from the fire runoff.

Madsen, a truck driver, said he could see the smoke Tuesday morning while driving from the Milwaukee area, some 30 miles away.

The plant grinds tires into chips and processes them into materials for other uses, such as road-paving or fuel.

Burning tires release pollutants into the air and can send toxic runoff into streams. In 1999, thousands of fish were killed by runoff from a 140-acre tire dump fire that burned for five days in northeastern Ohio. In 1995, a tire fire on four acres near Traverse City, Mich., burned for more than 20 days.