Authorities are allowing a massive fire from a chemical plant in Rockton, Illinois, to burn, which could take several days, rather than risk chemical runoff spilling into the nearby Rock River.

The fire has prompted Gov. JB Pritzker to send in the Illinois National Guard.

The fire started around 7 a.m. on Monday at the Chemtool plant at 1165 Prairie Hill Rd. Some neighbors in the area reported hearing small explosions when the fire began to burn. The company manufactures fluids, lubricants and fatty products for machinery.

On Tuesday, officials said barriers are currently being placed in the river for protection and fire crews will begin using foam in the blaze. Firefighting operations will continue throughout the day. Rockton police confirmed

Tuesday that monitoring devices were installed in the area. Good quality air has been detected from the soil and no contaminants have been reported. Monitoring of water pollution is ongoing and officials will continue to provide updates. Anyone within a three-mile radius is asked to still wear masks to protect their lungs, and residents in the one-mile evacuation zone must remain outside the area Tuesday.

Public health officials will answer any community questions through a new hotline at 815-972-7300 or by email at rocktonchemfire@wchd.org. Police also confirmed Tuesday that two people injured in the fire, including a firefighter, were treated and released from local hospitals.

Officials said the fire is likely to last at least seven more days. The investigation by state and federal agencies is still ongoing Tuesday. Fire department officials said Monday that the air near the plant is safe at ground level and that all factory workers were safe.

The fire prompted a mandatory evacuation order near the plant. Brandon Merano of CBS 2 reported that, on Monday night, he could see the plume of smoke from the fire 50 miles away as he made his way to the scene. “It literally looked like we had exploded a volcano and the smoke was very intense,” said Ryan Chester, a resident of the area.

More than 40 fire departments were called in to help contain the fire, fighting falling debris and grass fires in nearby yards. “The debris falling, we had some ash and stuff falling on the street, but nothing like what we saw falling in the neighborhoods behind Chemtool,” Chester said. “It’s just huge. It’s crazy.” Rockton police said the Rockton Fire Protection District ordered a mandatory evacuation for all homes and businesses within a mile of the factory.

As of Monday night, a total of 1,500 people living within five blocks of the plant had been evacuated from their homes. As CBS 2’s Jermont Terry reported, emergency crews had to monitor overnight to make sure others weren’t in immediate danger with the darkness. Residents were advised to head to Stephen Mack High School or Roscoe High School.

The Salvation Army and the Red Cross were on standby at school campuses. Others said they would rent a hotel room at night or stay with the family. Dr. Sandra Martell, Winnebago County’s public health administrator, also said anyone within a three-mile radius of the fire should wear a mask when outdoors. Meanwhile, Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said crews are letting the fire go out, rather than pouring more water over it, because of concerns about chemical runoff in the nearby Rock River.

Wilson said it could take a few days for the fire to go out completely. “That’s the best thing we can do right now,” Wilson said. “The main thing is that we don’t want an environmental nightmare to happen, and the reason we would provoke it is because of the use of water currents. So we stopped water operations at this point.” Wilson said crews have also been conducting air quality tests and have determined there is no danger to ground-level air quality. “I assure you that there is no ground-level hazard at the plant, but just as a precaution, we decided that the best thing for the safety of the community was to evacuate the area,” he said.

Wilson said the fire was already burning through the roof of the plant when the first teams arrived, and at the time there was no way to stop it. He said the plant has already been “practically consumed” by fire. “This was a fast-moving fire. It was driven by the wind,” he said.

CBS 2 meteorologist Laura Bannon reports that the huge plume of smoke from the fire is even visible on weather radar. The smoke could be seen as far away as Kankakee, more than 100 miles away. As smoke continued to billow out of the burned chemical plant, crews on land were busy putting out grass fires and working to make sure the fire didn’t spread. “I want to make sure the firefighters who were working at the scene were also safe,” Wilson said.

Wilson said all 70 employees who were working at the plant at the time were safely evacuated. No workers were injured, but one firefighter suffered a minor injury.


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About the author: Eduardo Kando WiseGroup Manager