The massive chemical plant explosion and fire at Chemtool in Rockton, Illinois, continued to burn for a second day on Tuesday, as authorities laid out a plan to suppress the blaze that is consuming half a million gallons of oil and has required the involvement of more than 80 different fire departments.
Authorities said the fire began at the Chemtool lubricant production plant, located at 1165 Prairie Hill Road in Rockton in Winnebago County, at around 7 a.m. Monday morning. Rockton, Illinois, is a village located about 95 miles northwest of Chicago.
The fire forced an evacuation of the area, with a one-mile radius evacuation zone from the plant still in effect Tuesday. Anyone within a three-mile radius of the plant was also asked to wear a mask.
As smoke continued to pour into the sky behind him Tuesday morning, more than 24 hours after the fire began, Rockton Fire Protection District Chief Kirk Wilson said fire officials have put into place a plan to suppress the flames while protecting the nearby Rock River - a vital groundwater source for the community.
Crews stopped using water to battle the blaze early Monday in order to prevent an "environmental nightmare" of product runoff into the Rock River, with authorities saying at the time that the fire could continue to burn over the course of a "several-day event."
The plant, which produces more industrial grease than any other plant in the country, houses dozens of chemicals, with some like lead and sulfuric acid, potentially posing hazards to nearby areas.
But on Tuesday, Wilson said U.S. Fire Pumps, a private industrial firefighting crew from Louisiana, was called to the scene to help with the effort, drawing on their experience in battling numerous refinery fires across the country.
"Right now, what our plan is is that we have a industrial firefighting crew from Louisiana that has shown up at the scene, and they have actually dug trenches along the west side of Chemtool to act as a block of any type of residual material that might go into the Rock River," Wilson said.
"And the other thing that is underway at this point in time is there are absorbing booms that are being placed in the river, just in case there's any product release. This is strictly for precautionary measures, but we want to make sure all that is in place before we actually start to do the actual firefight."
Wilson said the flames that were ongoing Tuesday morning had been contained to one area of the plant, with no other exposures.
Once both the trenches and booms are in place, Wilson said crews will begin to apply a "blanket of foam" on the plant to get the smoke down as well as "extinguish the still burning half a million gallons of oil that's still burning."
He noted that the blanket of foam will cause a change in the color of the smoke, currently black because it's freely burning.
"So once that's done and we can get the smoke plume to dissipate and we are ensured that air quality is good in the area, that ground air quality, then we can start looking at bringing our residents back into our community," he said. "But right now I can't speculate on that time."
"It's burning at a rate of about one inch per hour," Wilson said. "And if we let this continue to burn, they were speculating it could take up to seven days for it to completely burn off."
Part of the action plan also includes strike teams to handle any spot fires, to cover other unrelated emergencies within Rockton like medical calls, and also to rotate personnel and fire equipment at Chemtool out every eight hours to prevent exhaustion, he added. The effort as of Tuesday has involved a total of 84 separate fire departments.
"It's a huge collaborative effort through the state of Illinois and also southern Wisconsin," Wilson said.
"We're asking all of our residents to stay vigilant, and again I can't ask enough, please be patient," he continued. "This is a large scale operation that's gonna take some time so please be patient."
About 70 Chemtool employees on site evacuated the building before firefighters arrived, with no injuries reported. Two firefighters were taken to area hospitals - one for a minor injury to his leg and the other to be pre-evaluated for smoke inhalation - but have since been released.
The Red Cross, along with the Salvation Army, the Illinois National Guard, and a slew of state and federal agencies and departments, immediately mobilized after the fire broke out.
It remains unclear when area residents who evacuated will be allowed to return to their homes. Wilson said air monitoring devices had been installed throughout the community.
"We want to be as safe as possible we want to protect our residents, we don't want to have something happen that's going to cause a problem later in the future," Wilson said.