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Black Smoke, Tire Fire in Reykjavik

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland- 2:30 AM: “What is all of that black smoke!?!” A Danish girl asked me. I looked up to find a huge, billowing cloud of black smoke rising briskly into the atmosphere from a location very near to where we were standing.

Video of black smoke and fire in Reykjavik

“Something is on fire,” I stated. The smoke was rising into the sky so quickly that it looked as if it came from an explosion. My initial thought was that the factory that sits down on the coast had a melt down. The cloud was quickly covering the sky to the north of Reykjavik, but, fortunately, was being blown out to sea by a favorable wind. The result was surreal: a bomb like stream of black smoke was rolling across the sky, but our surroundings were absolutely silent, like we were watching an old war movie with the sound turned off. Something about the violence of the encroaching smoke and the peacefulness that surrounded me did not match. I likewise stood in silence as more and more billows of black clouds were shot up into the sky.

Tire fire in Reykjavik

I eventually fetched the employee at the campground to see if he heard anything on the news about the fire. “Do you know what building is on fire?” I asked, wondering if I should be on the run rather than standing as an idle spectator to my own doom.

“What!?!” The Polish attendant asked. He had no clue what I was talking about. I explained.

“There is an incredible cloud of black smoke covering the sky, something big is on fire.”

He looked at me in disbelief.

“Do you know what it is?”

“What!?!”

“Maybe you should come out and take a look.”

He did, I showed him. He ran manically to the hostel next door. I followed him slowly. Out in front of the hostel the Swedish night manager was already taking photos of the black smoke.

“I want to go over there so bad!” she exclaimed, “but I can’t because I’m working.”

The camp attendant nodded the same sentiment, but it was my impression that he did not harbor the same excitement of seeing the blaze at closer range — he seemed to sit more on the side of sense in this instance.

“I’m going to go check it out,” I proclaimed, and then began running towards the smoke.

“Take lots of pictures,” the Swedish girl yelled after me.

Black smoke filled the sky in Reykjavik

The closer I got to the blaze the more surreal the landscape became. This fire was huge, and the smoke rising from it was creating a black blanket of eminent doom over the entire sky to the north of the city. But nobody else seemed to notice. Cars passed by as they always do, at a normal pace, their drivers either not noticing or not caring at all about the manic combustion that was occurring in their neighborhood. By all accounts, without the incredible fountain of smoke rising into the sky, the night was absolutely, completely normal — peace — the birds were singing. I felt keenly as though I was walking through one of those atomic bomb test sites in the American southwest that had mannequins and mock ups of family life set up just to be annihilated by the bomb. I was in a bad dream of mixed realities — regular, quiet life surrounded me along with a black cloud of flaming doom rising vigorously into the sky.

I was soon near enough to see the provenience of the smoke. It was rising from behind an Olis gas station. I cringed. Had the tanks exploded? I started moving faster towards the beckoning fire, and, soon enough, I found myself in good company. Icelanders were pouring in from every direction and running towards the source of the smoke. A critical mass moved towards the best show in Rekjavik at 3 AM, Tuesday morning. A party atmosphere soon erupted, as people smiled and laughed and took photos as the fire burned.

“What happened?” I asked one guy. He didn’t know. I asked another.

“Tires.”

Tire fire

Apparently, a stack of tires in the junk yard were set ablaze. A team of firemen worked in futility, impotently squirting water into the heaving flames. They may as well have been pissing on it.

I stood in a crowd who had front row seats to the fire from a gas station — perhaps not the best place to be viewing a raging fire from. A propane canister exploded from inside the fire. I jumped, the Icelanders around me didn’t flinch. “Propane tank,” one of them said to me calmly.

[adsense]Unique layers of Icelandic character often come out in times like these. Icelanders are a people with a different measure of mortality, a more extreme threshold when it comes to personal safety and security. Icelanders, from what I have observed, fear little. Over the railing of the gas station where most of the spectators stood was another row of people watching the flames: they jumped the barricade and were standing near the firemen right next to the pile of flaming tires, hanging out a few meters from the blaze, just watching the show.

I soon became overtly aware of my own sense of mortality, turned, and got far, far away from the fire.

Tire fire in Reykjavik July 11, 2011

Later on in the morning, after sleeping a few hours, I walked back down to the site of the fire. The firemen were still there, still hosing down an area that was now just smoldering. The fire was tamed, the black smoke blown out to sea, and the show was just about over. I saw a couple of policemen standing at a barricade. They were stopping vehicles trying to use the road that went by the site of the fire. I walked down to them, hoping to be filled in on the cause of the blaze.

“Hello,” I greeted the two officers. They parlayed the greeting with stern, cop faces, and puffed out manly chests. “What happened?” I asked dumbly, indicating the still smoldering site of the fire.

“There was a fire of some tires that somebody made,” the officer nearest me responded.

“So it was set on purpose?” I asked.

“Yes, we think that.”

“Was it the owners?” I asked simply, thinking maybe the junk yard sought expedient means to get rid of their towering store of tires.

The police officer answered with a big no.

“So the fire was just started by some asshole then?” I asked with a smile.

Both cops broke down their guard a little at my choice adjective for the perpetrator and laughed. “Yes, we think it was just some asshole.”

A couple hugs and watches the flames

Before and after photos

Here are a couple photos of before and after the fire.

Tires before fire


After the fire

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Filed under: Danger, Europe, Iceland, Western Europe

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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