Tracing Tracy Territory: The fire that keeps on burning
by Sam Matthews / TP publisher emeritus
Jan 14, 2011 | 6159 views | 2 2 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Some 7 million discarded tires began burning Aug. 7, 1998, south of Tracy. The fire continued to produce dense black smoke for more than two years and may have triggered blindness in one family with a genetic disposition.  Press file
Some 7 million discarded tires began burning Aug. 7, 1998, south of Tracy. The fire continued to produce dense black smoke for more than two years and may have triggered blindness in one family with a genetic disposition. Press file
For the more than two years that some 7 million of Chuck Royster’s discarded tires burned in an abandoned gravel pit south of town, the major fear of nearby residents was the impact the fire’s black plume of smoke could have on their lungs.

Now, nearly 13 years after the fire broke out Aug. 7, 1998, the possible health impact of the black smoke from the burning tires is centered on one family’s eyes.

A mother, her teenage daughter and a 4-year-old daughter living near or downwind from the fire all went blind, and medical researchers suspect the combination of the smoke and a little-known genetic disease could be the cause.

The name of the local family suffering multiple blindness has never been released to the public, but the case is well-documented in scientific circles, according to a Boston-based author.

He is collecting information for a book on what is called Leber’s Heritable Optical Neuropathy, commonly known as LHON, and a mutant gene in carriers’ mitochondria, described as “the energy factories that live in all our cells.”

The disease occurs because the optic nerve, which sends information from the eye to the brain, runs out of energy and fails — forever. First one eye goes blind, and then a few weeks later the other eye loses sight, the author explained.

He reported that researchers at the University of Southern California are investigating the disease’s impact on a large family in Brazil.

Their work has shown that people who have inherited the mutant gene — always from the mother — don’t always go blind, but smoke and alcohol seem to somehow trigger the blindness. Younger men are more prone to be affected.

There is no known cure, and no known way to prevent it.

The family members living near or downwind from the 1998 tire fire didn’t know they carried the mutation, and the mother suddenly lost vision in one eye and then the other. An adolescent daughter also lost sight, and then the 4-year-old became the youngest known case, the author reported.

“Doctors looking for the reason soon learned that they lived near — or maybe downwind from — that huge tire fire in 1998,” the Bostonian told me while seeking a photo of the tire fire.

Because the plume of black smoke covered a wide area, especially southeast of the fire, the location of the afflicted family has not been publicly pinpointed, but the family’s loss of sight was reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a chemical analysis of the tire-fire smoke.

The author added a word of caution: “As far as I know, there is no proof yet that the tire smoke caused their blindness.”

But the combination of the family’s genetic history and proximity to smoke from the tire fire certainly points in that direction.

n Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at

Comments-icon Post a Comment
January 14, 2011
I think they did make the connection earlier. They just haven't released the story until now.

My thoughts are with this family.
January 14, 2011
As the plume pushes up it heads west. Most of the homes are not West, but North. Now, it could be that they lived West of the fire, but that would be out in San Joaquin County. Possibly even New Jerusalem.

I'm also wondering if county water had something to do with it. There are also a lot of crop dusters out there. My guess is it was not just one factor.

Smoking and drinking enter the body through the lungs and stomach and affect internal organs. Smoke from the fire may have been a contribitor.

But I find it interesting that only 13 years later they make this connection. I'm not saying it's not the reason, but why didn't they make the connection earlier. And why didn't they give the exact dates when each event occured?

There's a lot we are not being told and it would be interesting to hear the rest of the story. Kinda whets your appetite. Reminds me of the ghost stories this paper printed. And the UFO stories too.

This paper seems more and more like a national tabloid every day. Someday soon somebody's going to print a picture of the half dog half man creature just to sell a paper. We need journalism and facts not just factoids.

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