A massive fire at the Chemtool plant in Rockton, Illinois, prompted a mandatory evacuation of the area Monday morning, authorities said.
The Rockton Police Department posted an alert at around 8:46 a.m., warning that fire officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation for the area south of Chemtool, located at 1165 Prairie Hill Road.
"This notice affects all residents and business south of Chem Tool on Prairie Hill rd. Traffic is advised to avoid area," the alert reads. "Please evacuate the area. Wait for further instructions."
Firefighters responded to the fire at the plant at around 7 a.m. Monday, Rockton Fire Protection District Chief Kirk Wilson said at a news conference. Rockton is located roughly 13 miles north of Rockford.
When they arrived, firefighters found the fire had already burned through the roof of the building, which houses the Chemtool lubricant manufacturing facility.
About 70 Chemtool employees on site evacuated the building before firefighters arrived, Wilson said, with no injuries reported among the employees. Wilson said one firefighter sustained what seemed to be minor injuries but was able to walk to an ambulance and was taken to an area hospital for treatment.
Fire officials created an evacuation zone with a one-mile radius, authorities said.
"We did do air quality, we have several agencies that are assisting us right now, including the city of Rockford hazmat. They are doing air quality analysis in the area and at this point in time, there is no danger to air quality at ground level," Wilson said. "But just for a precautionary measure, we decided that it was in the best interest of community safety that we evacuated the area."
Fire officials said first responders themselves directly evacuated about 150 homes immediately surrounding Chemtool, but did not have a number of how many people may have evacuated on their own within that one-mile radius.
Wilson said crews had stopped using water to suppress the flames to prevent an "environmental nightmare" of product runoff into the nearby Rock River - meaning the fire could continue to burn for days.
"At this point in time the building is pretty much consumed, we're thinking that this is going to be a several-day event to have all this product burned off," Wilson said. "And that's the best thing that we can do right now."
"The main thing is that we don't want an environmental nightmare to occur and, and the reason we can, that we would cause that, is by the use of water streams," he continued. "So we stopped water operations at this point, we stopped suppression, we felt it was in our best interest to let this product burn off."
"The Rock River, which is a very large waterway, is about 300 meters to the west of this location. So that's one thing that we're definitely concerned about is product runoff into the river, so we don't want that to happen. So at this point in time it's best that we just let this product burn," Wilson added.
Wilson said roughly 40 to 45 different agencies from Illinois and southern Wisconsin responded to the fire, with about 150 to 175 fire personnel on the scene.
Officials said they were asking residents to stay out of the area for a few more hours as the situation unfolds.
Massive plumes of thick black smoke billowing into the sky were visible from Chicago, nearly 100 miles away. The smoke has also been picked up on radar systems operated from satellites in space.
"It was biggest smoke I have ever seen and the sky was blacker than when you get a tornado," said Lori Oostendorf, who was evacuated from her home.
The Salvation Army said it was also responding to the fire to provide support to first responders as they battle the blaze.
"The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services staff and volunteers are responding to the Chemtool fire in Rockton," the organization said in a statement. "EDS is deploying a mobile feed unit, as well as a field kitchen and rapid response unit to provide meals, snacks and hydration to first responders."