A burning pile of tires near downtown sent toxic smoke billowing into the Las Vegas sky Wednesday afternoon, keeping firefighters busy for hours and snarling rush hour traffic around the Spaghetti Bowl.
The bundled tires were used as protective barriers during the Vegas Grand Prix, which ended April 8. The race organizers were allowed to store the tires for free on a city-owned lot at D Street and West Bonanza Road, a city official said.
Firefighters were called to the lot about 4 p.m. regarding a trash fire.
When firefighters arrived and found that they had a tire fire on their hands, more units were called, said Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski. Tire fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and they pollute the air, soil and water.
Four alarms were called, meaning that about 40 fire department vehicles and 125 firefighters were summoned to the scene, Szymanski said.
Smoke from the fire could be seen as far away as Indian Springs, more than 30 miles northwest of Las Vegas, while the putrid smell of burning oil and rubber permeated downtown and West Las Vegas. Traffic jammed up on the nearby Interstate 15-U.S. Highway 95 interchange.
Szymanski said the fire was never really out of control because the tires had been stored properly, in a pile and away from any structure.
Though the pile of baled tires looked to be no more than 100 feet in diameter, the intense heat from the blaze reached upwards of 1,000 degrees, Szymanski said.
Firefighters were delayed in setting up enough hoses to put enough water on the blaze. Several trenches had to be dug under train tracks to get the hoses to the fire.
"It took us a little while to play catch-up," Szymanski said.
Fire crews eventually were dumping water and foam onto the blaze from at least six hoses. By 7:30 p.m., crews were being pulled off the call.
No injuries were reported, Szymanski said. The cause of the blaze was under investigation, and damage estimates were unavailable late Wednesday.
The plan Wednesday night was to use a backhoe to spread out the tires, and fire crews were expected to remain on the scene into the night to try to prevent a flare-up, he said.
With fire investigators, the Clark County Health District will be looking into any environmental impact from the melted rubber, Szymanski said. The costs of dealing with any environmental damage will be billed to the owners of the tires, he said.
When tires burn, they break down into hazardous compounds that include carcinogens, heavy metals and oil. The average passenger car tire produces more than two gallons of oil when burned, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Las Vegas Rescue Mission, across Bonanza from the blaze, was not affected by the fire, said Dana Saunders, a desk clerk at the mission. No evacuations were ordered, but neighborhood residents were urged to stay indoors as a precaution, officials said.
City spokesman David Riggleman said the city allowed the Vegas Grand Prix to store the tires, gates and concrete barriers on the lot free of charge at first because it wanted to give the organization a "foot up."
But, Riggleman said, the city was to meet with race organizers next week to discuss a storage fee, among other issues.
The race organizers have been using the lot for storage since about late February or early March, Riggleman said.
He said the fire department issued the Vegas Grand Prix permits to store the tires at the lot, and the organization met all of the storage requirements. The tires must be stacked properly and not be close to any structures, he said.
The permitting process took place over several weeks before the Vegas Grand Prix was held, but Riggleman did not know when the permits were issued.
Jana Watt, spokeswoman for the Vegas Grand Prix, said the organization was in the process of moving the tires and barriers to Phoenix for the Grand Prix Arizona, set for Dec. 2.
Like the Vegas Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Arizona is owned by Arizona businessmen Dale Jensen and Bradley Yonover.
Watt did not know how many tires were stored at the site but estimated 25 percent of the tires that had been stored in Las Vegas had been moved to Phoenix.
The baled racing tires were used to provide added padding on certain parts of the 2.44-mile temporary street course used during the Vegas Grand Prix on downtown streets from April 6 to 8.
Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.