Spontaneous combustion of rivers?

I was reading Aglaronds thread about stupid e-mails and the mention of a spontaneoulsy combusting river interested me. How does a river (Cuyahoga river) was mentioned suddenly catch fire?
The most promising thing I found on the web turned out to be a site saying how clean the river is now.

It caught fire due to an oil slick on the river, thanks to lax or nonexistent environmental laws and the steel companies discharging waste into the river. Nobody knows for sure exactly what sparked the fire, but according to this site:


The cause of the fire was undetermined, but investigations the days following the fire pointed to a “discharge of highly volatile petroleum derivatives with a sufficiently low flash point to be ignited by a chance occurrence” by sparks from a train.

The train theory makes a bit of sense… a railroad bridge near the fire was severely damaged by the fire, which apparently reached 5 stories in height.

The above-mentioned site also includes some nifty pictures of the fire and the damage.

One more interesting tidbit… 1969 was not the first time the cuyahoga caught fire… It also went up in flames in the 1930s and 1950s!

Mundane pointless observation: I first became aware of the flaming cuyahoga when i was a wee lad and listened to r.e.m.'s wonderful song “cuyahoga” in the early 80s.

Thanks for the link. It was very informative. Do you know if any other rivers have caught fire?

I can give at least one other example: In 1889, during the first Johnstown Flood, the debris-clogged Allegheny River caught fire. That’s sort of a special case, though… It’s not normally flammable.

REM did a song about the Cuyahoga? Wow, I never realised that… You’d think that they’d play it in Cleveland, wouldn’t you? And I don’t care what anybody says about how clean it is now, no Clevelander in their right mind is going to have any contact with the fluid of the Cuyahoga River (I was going to say “water”, but that’s only a trace impurity).

Yet another tidbit: The most recent time that the river burned was just a few years ago, but it was deliberate. Cleveland was the setting for the film Double Dragon, and was meant to represent post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Apparently, none of the SoCal rivers are flammible (it’s the air that burns, out there), so they had to go East.

Randy Newman wrote a song about the Cuyahoga called “Burn On (Big River).” It was released in 1972 on his Sail Away album, and played over the opening credits for the flick, Major League.

IIRC it was this incident (the flaming polluted river, not the song) that created teh momentum to get the Clean Water Act through congress.

The Rouge River (that winds through the Ford Motor complex southwest of Detroit) has also “caught fire.” As noted in the linked article, the oil slick burned for fewer than 25 minutes and it became national news by a fluke of reporting. I suspect that if it had been described as “oil slick on the river burns” instead of a “burning river” then it would have been ignored the way that similar burning oil slicks have remained local news on the Hudson, Mississippi, Ohio, and numerous other rivers.

A river in China has caught fire a few times. It is alongside many coal barge loading terminals, and several TONS of coal are spilled into the river accidentally (oh hell, actually through gross incompetance and the fact that they just don’t give a shit) each day. The volatiles from the coal form an oil slick that spontaneously combusts when the river heats up. It’s ususally not a big fire, nor does it last long - it looks like an alcohol fire somewhat. The problem was (aside from the obvious ones) is that it sometimes gets to the bank and sets the grass on fire.

The industrial regions of China are some of the most filthy and dangerous in the world - it’s the only place where when I visit a power plant I would want an environment suit.