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The western Salt Lake skyline turned black Saturday morning as an inferno of used tires burned out of control.

Fire officials believe the blaze was intentionally set and said they are concerned that the fire occurred on a day when at least 49 firefighters called in sick with the "red flu."The fire, burning about a 10-acre field of used tires near 23rd West and Fourth South, may last for three to five days and will require that at least two companies of firefighters stay on the scene at all times - exactly what the department didn't want on a day when it's extremely low on manpower, Salt Lake City Fire Chief Peter O. Pederson said.

"This is about the worst thing that could happen," he said, adding that a tire fire is one of the most difficult to fight. Water does little good.

"All you can do in this kind of situation is try and isolate it. These things will just burn forever."

The fire was a hot party spot Saturday night as vanloads of people clogged the dirt road off Fifth South leading to the flames and smoke that lighted up the west side of the valley in an eerie, gold glow. Police officers were called out to fan away the people, who clicked snapshots of the inferno.

Officials closed five fire stations Saturday because of the large number of "sick" firefighters involved in a contract dispute with the city. Fire-fighters on vacation and those who were not scheduled to work had to be called in to fight the fire and staff the remaining eight stations. Every chief officer was called to work Saturday and many were right on the lines.

Pederson issued a policy Thursday requiring anyone who calls in sick to provide proof of his illness from a licensed physician. He said everyone who didn't work Saturday will be put under administrative review.

Workers at Steel Coatings, 393 S. 23rd West, told police that they heard an explosion just before the blaze broke out. Another witness said he saw a brown automobile speed away from the scene. That and the fact that the blaze spread so quickly has led investigators to believe the fire was deliberately set. But Pederson and workers at the scene said they doubt any disgruntled firefighter would have set it.

"No chance! Absolutely no chance!" firefighter Lou Chase said. "All these guys want is to negotiate. They don't want any trouble."

"I don't think any of them would lower themselves, regardless of their frustrations," Pederson said. "I wouldn't rule that out, but I wouldn't say that they would ever do that."

Dark, thick smoke began billowing into the air about 11:40 a.m. and at times rose nearly 300 feet. Provo and Ogden residents said they could see the smoke. Southern winds fanned the fire and caused the smoke to encompass nearby I-215 and I-80, which had to be closed down.

"We came through there (I-215). It was just like an eclipse," Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Dave B. Decker said. A stretch of I-80 between 40th West and I-215 was expected to be closed for at least 24 hours, he said.

Eastbound I-80 motorists will need to exit at 40th West; westbound motorists on their way to the airport will need to exit at Redwood Road and take North Temple. People driving to Tooele will need to travel west on 21st South, the UHP said.

Units from West Valley City and Salt Lake County were called in to help fight the fire. Tractors were sent to isolate some of the piles of tires.

Control tower workers at the Salt Lake International Airport said the smoke did not affect air travel. But David Carpenter, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service's Salt Lake office, at the airport, said the smoke "makes it look like it's cloudy" and may have even kicked the temperature readings up a couple of degrees.

Strong southerly winds fanning the blaze are expected to continue through midday Sunday and should then decrease and shift to the northwest, he said.

Linda Coombs, mother of two Steel Coatings employees, said her heart stopped beating when she first saw the smoke near the business. "I was just coming back from my dad's grave and I saw the smoke, and it scared me to death," she said.

One firefighter was treated at Holy Cross Hospital for smoke inhalation and then released, but no one else was injured in the blaze.

Firefighters Union President Charlie Quick was out of town, but a union representative who has been involved in the negotiations said the "sick" firefighters hope Salt Lake residents will understand their purpose and not give up support of the firefighters in their plight.

"The city wants the public to think they're negotiating. They're not listening to us. We only go to meetings and . . . the mayor keeps bringing back the same ultimatums," he said.

He, too, said he doubts it was a firefighter who set Saturday's blaze. "They're busting their butts to prevent whatever happened to get any bigger; would (setting the blaze) make any sense?"


(Additional information)

Unhealthy air

Air-quality officials say the thick smoke from the tire fire contains hazardous chemicals. "People in the direct path of the plume should take precautions," said Burnell Cordner, director of the state Bureau of Air Quality. The bureau will continue to monitor the smoke as the winds change. Residents living near a similar fire last year in Ogden had to be evacuated, he said. Motorists traveling by the area likely will not suffer any detrimental effects.