ROCKTON, Illinois – A massive chemical fire that has darkened the skies with plumes of black smoke over parts of northern Illinois could burn for days, fire officials said Monday.
As many as 175 firefighters from 45 fire departments responded to the rapid blast caused by the wind at Chemtool, a grease and lubricant manufacturer in Rockton, Ill..
About 70 Chemtool employees and about 150 homes within a one-mile radius of the plant were evacuated as the manufacturing plant caught fire.
No employees or residents of the area were injured, Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson said at a press conference on Monday. A firefighter was rushed from the scene to a hospital with respiratory problems. He was treated and released.
Governor JB Pritzker activated state emergency officials to monitor the fire and environmental impact in Winnebago County.
The factory is no longer standing, but the blaze is far from over, Wilson said.
“We think it will be a multi-day event for all of this product to be burnt,” Wilson said. “It’s the best thing we can do right now.”
The blaze started around 7 a.m. Monday and explosions could be seen and heard throughout the morning, sending ash and debris into the yards beyond the mandatory evacuation zone.
Tom Buffum, who lives less than half a mile from Chemtool, said he mistook the factory explosions for thunder.
“After the third explosion, he walked into the room whimpering,” Buffum said of the family dog, Krypto. “He was scared.”
Buffum, his daughter, two grandchildren, Krypto, a cat and a ferret were evacuated from their home by the police. The family was one of 15 people who took refuge in a nearby college.
In a statement Monday morning, Chemtool owner Lubrizol Corporation said everyone at the site was safe and taken care of.
“We don’t yet know what caused this incident, but we will work with local authorities and our own risk management team to determine what happened and identify corrective actions. We will share more details as we go. and as they become known, ”the company said. .
Lubrizol Corporation is a Berkshire Hathaway company that owns and operates more than 100 manufacturing plants, sales offices and technical offices around the world and employs approximately 8,800 people.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency dispatched teams to the area, and members of the Illinois National Guard were also at the scene.
Winnebago County Public Health Administrator Sandra Martell has urged people living within three miles of the factory to wear a mask or face covering when outside.
The Rockford Fire Department sent its Hazardous Materials team to perform an air quality scan, and Wilson, the fire chief, said: “At the moment there is no danger for air quality at ground level. “
However, county officials later said more extensive testing with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would be needed to measure the impact on air, water and land.
“Our primary focus is on the safety of people by addressing concerns to ensure that existing conditions are alleviated,” Martell said Monday.
While residents within a mile of the plant have been urged to evacuate, residents two miles directly south of Chemtool are urged to stay indoors as a precaution, close windows and doors. and turning off air conditioners / HVAC units.
Wilson said firefighters were also concerned about runoff from the Rock River, located about 300 meters from the plant.
Rockton Village President John Peterson has called the loss of the Chemtool building, its operations and possibly its jobs “a shame.”
“They have been good partners with our village since they arrived here,” he said. “He is a good employer and they have always supported the village.”
“It is still too early to talk about what will happen next,” he added.
Follow reporter Chris Green on Twitter: @chrisfgreen