by The Chicago Times Staff

June 14, 2021

ROCKTON, IL — A massive chemical plant fire near the Illinois-Wisconsin border that sent black plumes of smoke into the air is expected to burn for several days as firefighters retreat and residents are ordered to evacuate.

Around 7 a.m., a fire broke out at the Chemtool Inc. plant at 1165 Prairie Hill Road in Rockton, about 10 miles north of Rockford, according to Rockton Fire Protection District Chief Kirk Wilson.  The cause of the fire is still unknown, and no major injuries have been reported.  To avoid runoff and contamination of waterways, firefighters stopped spraying the fire with water.

As a precaution, residents were evacuated within a mile of the plant, he said.  So far, air quality tests show the air is OK at ground level, Wilson said.  An employee of the plant told a reporter from WTVO that he had been at work for less than an hour when the fire alarms went off and someone yelled “fire.”

According to WTVO, the fire was possibly caused by the failure of a pipe that transported hot grease within the plant.  Employees have been evacuated in the past for minor emergencies, but nothing on this scale, according to the employee.

Governor J.B. Pritzker activated the state’s emergency center and deployed the Illinois National Guard to the fire.  In a statement, Pritzker said, “I am closely monitoring this situation and will make all resources available to the surrounding communities as we work to keep people safe.”

The EPA responded to the scene to conduct air monitoring and sampling, according to the agency.  The fire’s smoke drifted south and southeast past Rockford, prompting the city to advise residents to stay inside, close windows, and turn off air conditioners.

The Ogle County sheriff’s office said smoke covered a third of the county south of Rockford.  By the time firefighters arrived, the fire had spread quickly, aided in part by strong winds, and was shooting through the plant’s roof.

He said about 70 employees evacuated the plant on their own and were unharmed.  A minor, unspecified injury was sustained by one firefighter.  He said about 175 firefighters from over 40 local fire departments were dispatched to help.

According to Wilson, the fire department also has reconnaissance crews scouring the town for fires caused by falling burning debris.  He stated that any debris falling from the sky was assumed to be non-toxic.

In total, about 150 homes in Rockton were evacuated.  The Salvation Army has stated that it is assisting with the response.

Chemtool Inc., headquartered in Rockton, is the country’s largest grease manufacturer.  It operates a plant in Crystal Lake, Illinois, which is located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.