Experimental Road Smolders and Burns

Talk about hot wheels: A county road is closed because flames and smoke keep bursting through its surface.

The smoldering road began as a 350-foot recycling experiment that used a half-million old shredded tires to build up a roadbed north of Pomeroy, in the southeastern corner of Washington.

As engineers ponder a solution, traffic has been rerouted from the steaming road that sometimes shoots flames.

Meanwhile, those still in the area are annoyed.

''It stinks like burned rubber,'' Clay Barr, director of emergency services for Garfield County, complains.

The old tires were cut into chips and mixed with dirt and gravel to fill a 50-foot-deep gully last year. More gravel was poured on top.

Steam began escaping from the roadbed last fall, and 18-inch flames were sighted by mid-January. Engineers aren't sure why the road began smoldering.

The theory is that fall flooding saturated the old tires with water, which accelerated rusting in the steel-belted tires. Rust creates heat that may have ignited the tires, Barr says.

Local and federal officials met Feb. 7 to discuss possible solutions. The material may have to be removed.

Until then, the steaming road remains a warm oasis in a frozen corner of eastern Washington.

''At times you can't see through the steam,'' says county engineer Mike Selivanoff. ''It's kind of scenic more than anything else. Like driving through Yellowstone National Park.''

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