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Fire Damages Macon Automotive Business

(Macon Telegraph) A fuel leak from a sport utility vehicle triggered a fire at a Tires Plus store Jan. 22, causing major damage to the downtown business.

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Workers and customers were able to leave the building, located at 852 Riverside Dr., and no injuries were reported.

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The blaze began about 10:40 a.m. when a fuel leak from a Chevy Blazer being repaired hit a work light, said Capt. Tom Musselwhite of the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department. The bulb shattered, and a spark hit fuel that had already drained onto the floor, causing the fire to spread quickly.

People gathered around a police-set perimeter to watch firefighters battle the fire, which sent huge plumes of thick, black smoke high through downtown Macon.

The fire could have gotten out of control quickly because of the tires and the flammable liquids at the business, Musselwhite said.

"It was under control very quickly, even with the amount of tires here," he said. "Our greatest fear in this type of fire is the acetylene tanks along with the fuel in the cars. It took about 30 minutes to control it using foam on the tires."

The fire was out within about an hour. None of the businesses surrounding Tires Plus were damaged.

There were about 600 tires inside Tires Plus when it began to burn, said Johnny Wingers, director of the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency.

Lee Oliver, director of emergency medical services for The Medical Center of Central Georgia, said this kind of fire posed a greater risk to emergency responders because of the intense heat from tire fires, the chemicals released when they burn, and the likely presence of compressed gases, which can be explosive, at Tires Plus.

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"But this is a good day for (fighting this fire), because if there were a lot of fog the smoke would be hanging close to the ground," Oliver said. Although Oliver noted the black smoke from the tires originally was blowing in the direction of the main post office on College Street, most of the smoke rose, making evacuations unnecessary.

Authorities also were concerned about the level of petroleum in the water streaming down the curb along Riverside Drive. The fire shut down Riverside Drive from Spring Street to First Street for more than an hour.

Winthrop Brown, manager of the state’s scrap tire program, said the chief environmental concern when there’s a tire fire within city limits is runoff flowing into storm drains. (Tires contain petroleum as well as other pollutants.) A big, roaring fire also can damage utility wires and can harm people who breathe the smoke.

An hour after firefighters began responding to the fire, Macon’s hazardous materials team, run by the fire department, had set up a system to catch the runoff, Brown said. At that time, however, water still was rushing out of Tires Plus and down the street as firefighters fought the blaze.

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From the area where half-burned tires were stacked an hour after the fire, water with black flakes in it was pooling behind hoses and flowing into drains.

The "hazmat" team arrived about 40 minutes after responders started fighting the fire. Fire Capt. Donny Mercer, who runs the hazmat team, said it typically takes that long to deploy the unit. He said the team set up floating "booms" where the storm drains empty into a creek behind the Terminal Station. The booms prevent any floating residue from flowing downstream. The hazmat team places an absorbent material on the residue to soak it up.

Brown said the Macon office of the Environmental Protection Division is working with the fire department to determine whether the fire had any environmental impacts. Because the storm drain travels half a mile before reaching the stream, Brown said, it might take until the next rain for pollutants to be flushed into the river.

At an adjacent Waffle House during the fire, customers continued to dine while watching the crews trying to fight the ferocious flames.

Waffle House server Eshunda Robinson said the smoke started coming out of the windows slowly but quickly got out of hand.

"It just started poofing up in black smoke, and then the flames started coming out of the windows – big, thick flames," Robinson said. "They couldn’t even put it out at first."

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At one point, Musselwhite said the Tires Plus building was in imminent danger of collapse. Besides the Blazer, three other cars that were being repaired at the time were damaged beyond repair.

Mark Tyszka, the district manager for Tires Plus, said the company’s insurance would work with the car owners about getting replacement vehicles.

"We’ll make it right."

He said the most important thing was that no one was injured.

"The company’s stance is that the safety of the employees and the customers is our top priority," he said. "We’re relieved no one was injured. It’s an unfortunate situation." He said it was too soon to know if the company would rebuild the business on that site.

Tyszka said there were nine or 10 employees who worked at the site, and all of them will transfer to other Tires Plus locations in the area. (Tire Review/Akron)

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