Industrial firefighting team on scene of Rockton chemical fire, putting environmental safeguards into place

ROCKTON, Ill. — Fire officials in northern Illinois say they’ve called in a private industrial firefighting team to help put out a chemical fire that has been burning for more than 24 hours.

The fire at the Chemtool plant in Rockton, just across the Wisconsin state border, started at about 7 a.m. Monday and oil in the plant continued to burn Tuesday morning.

Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson says U.S. Fire Pumps, which specializes in fighting industrial fires, is now at the plant and preparing environmental safeguards before they begin working on putting out the fire. That includes digging a trench between the plant and the Rock River to catch any runoff and placing absorbant booms in the river.

Wilson says fire departments made the decision to let the fire continue to burn until those safeguards could be put into place to protect the environment from any potentially toxic runoff. He expects the trenches to be dug and booms to be in place by 11 a.m. Tuesday before U.S. Fire Pumps begins applying foam to the fire and the areas that have already been burnt.

“We want to make sure that we have our situation under control, that we don’t compromise the Village of Rockton or any of our waterways before we actually start to apply foam to this fire,” Wilson said during a press briefing Tuesday morning.

About 500,000 gallons of oil are still burning inside the plant. Wilson says if they had let it burn off on its own, the fire could have continued burning for up to a week.

Wilson and other local officials are asking people in the area to stay patient and vigilant. People living in the area are being asked to keep their windows closed and not run their air conditioning until the smoke plume dissipates. The EPA is continuing to measure the air quality in the area, but did not have data to report as of Tuesday morning.

People within one mile of the plant are still evacuated from their homes, and people within three miles are still being asked to wear masks as a precaution. Wilson did not have a timeline for when either precaution would be lifted.

“Again, I can’t ask enough, please be patient,” Wilson said. “This is a large-scale operation that’s going to take some time, so please be patient.”

Officials stressed their main concern is still the safety of people in the community and protecting the environment.

“If we let product go into the river, I think we have more of an environmental impact and more of a nightmare than this actual fire,” Wilson said.