Rick Paree was working inside Callaghan Tire when he first heard an explosion.
Within 10 minutes, the Callaghan Tire shipping and receiving manager said, the entire building was engulfed in flames Thursday. The 4,000 tires adjacent to the building also caught on fire.
“There was an explosion,” Paree said as plumes of dark smoke billowed from 1301 44th Ave. E. “It just sounded like a tire blow up. It will rattle a building.”
While the fire started at a building adjacent to Callaghan Tire, the wind caused the blaze to spread quickly. When firefighters arrived, the building was already engulfed in flames, said Jacob Saur, Manatee County Public Safety’s 911 chief. Officials quickly declared an evacuation zone northwest of the fire scene in the 1200 block of 44th Avenue East, and nearby schools were forced to alter dismissal schedules.
“We believe it spread to another building to the west,” Saur said. “It quickly escalated from a three-alarm fire to a five-alarm fire.”
Three people — one person and two firefighters — were transported from the scene to a hospital for treatment of heat exhaustion.
“All in stable condition,” Saur said.
The fire was reported to 911 shortly after noon.
Southern Manatee Fire & Rescue Lt. Melvin Bonds said he called for a second alarm as soon as he saw the smoke. From there, it quickly escalated into a five-alarm fire with 14 fire engines responding. Firefighters’ used oxygen containers were lined up in the street as they were emptied, at one point there were 25, and still more were added.
With a fire station right up the road, Southern Manatee Fire & Rescue responded within a few minutes. As the fire escalated to a multiple-alarm fire, units from Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, Sarasota County, Bradenton and Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue, as well as others, were called out.
“The fire was wind-driven, basically pushing it into all the tires that you can see behind me. And once that ignites, it’s very had to put out,” said Southern Manatee Fire & Rescue Chief Brian Gorski.
Smoke rose high into the air with sightings reported in areas as far as St. Petersburg. The National Weather Service in Tampa Bay reported that its Doppler radar in Ruskin was “detecting smoke from large commercial fire just south of downtown Bradenton.”
Burning for hours, the blaze quickly turned into what Gorski called “an environmental issue.”
“We do have a situation that is developing because of the runoff of water with the oils and other chemicals that those tires give off,” Gorski said. “We’ve got to capture it so it doesn’t start polluting the stormwater system.”
By 4 p.m. Thursday, Gorski said they were in the “mop-up” phase.
“The reason for the caution is that tires can reignite.”
By 4:30 p.m., crews were rolling up hoses, and Bonds said they were trying to get trucks back into service.
As firefighters battled the blaze, Callaghan Tire employees stood by with a crowd of spectators. Because of the heat, several firefighters occasionally had to sit down, drink water and pour it over their heads. Two Manatee County Area Transit buses were brought to the scene so firefighters could sit in the air conditioning during their rehabilitation breaks.
The Red Cross went through a truckload of supplies at the scene that officials said would usually be enough for 10 apartment fires.
The Salvation Army in Bradenton sent out its Emergency Disaster Services Mobile Feeding Unit to provide food and water to 125 first responders, a news release said.
Callaghan Tire was founded in 1978. The Bradenton location is the independently owned tire chain’s headquarters, with other service centers, plants, tire repair centers and auto centers throughout Florida.
“We’ve never had a fire as long I worked for Callaghan,” said Paree, who has worked at the company for 17 years. “I just saw the flare. ... The wind blew it over. No fire inside. I shut all the doors before the fire burned in. This is horrible.”
It was too early to tell just how much damage was caused by the fire, said Guy Virgilio, Callaghan Tire VP manufacturing/safety director.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office will investigate the cause, Bonds said.
Crews left the scene Thursday evening but were called back around 8 p.m. to put out some hot spots.