Posts Tagged Morris Fire Chief Tracey Steffas

Interdivisional industrial fire in Morris, 6-29-21 (more)

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Morris officials said an evacuation order for a massive industrial fire for over 3,000 people will lift Friday at 4 p.m., as they continue to make progress fighting the blaze. The evacuation order was in place due to the toxic fumes and smoke emanating from the building, stemming from as many as 200,000 lithium batteries exploding.

The blaze started just before 11:45 a.m. Tuesday at the old Federal Paper Board facility in the 900-block of East Benton Street.

Officials said they made a lot of progress using Portland cement mix to fight the industrial fire at an abandoned paper mill Thursday and that it is now in check. Morris Fire Chief Tracey Steffes said they have used 28 tons of Portland cement to smother the burning lithium batteries and there was no longer any active burning at the site, but warned it is possible the batteries could continue burning since they do not need oxygen to burn. Three hot spots have flared up as noticed when the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office sent a drone  inside the building. 

Firefighters were digging a trench in the lowest corner of the building in case the fire breaks through the cement and water is needed. Before using cement, firefighters tried using a dry chemical to extinguish the fire.

“These batteries range in size of a cell phone to a little bigger than a car battery. As they get wet, they short out and they ignite and explode. That is the problem we are having,” Steffes said. “The biggest hazard we have is the smoke and fumes as well as the gas from the fire. Highly poisonous and very deadly.”

The building’s owner Jin Zheng said he was on the scene minutes after the fire started, but was unable to get inside. The thick black smoke coming from the building was fueled by explosions of thousands of lithium batteries inside. He was storing supplies in the 70,000-square-foot warehouse and was planning to open a solar power business by the end of the year. He has lost his life savings in the fire and had planned to get insurance after he opened the new business. He also planned to have repairs done to the building’s roof later this week, and he believes water dripping onto the batteries could have sparked the explosions and fire.

The Illinois EPA is monitoring air quality from several locations around town and tests were favorable. 

The Red Cross was supplying food and water to the more than 300 people battling the fire. Red Cross volunteers were also working to set up a reception center and shelter for those who were evacuated at First Christian Church, 455 W. Southmor Road in Morris.

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Interdivisional industrial fire in Morris, 6-29-21 (more)

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Firefighters say that a lithium battery fire, which began to burn on Tuesday, is still smoldering in Morris, but progress has been made and officials are looking to execute new strategies to put out the blaze.

According to Morris Fire Chief Tracey Steffas, the fire grew in intensity overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday, but crews were on scene throughout. The fire has died down considerably since Wednesday morning, but is still giving off toxic smoke.

Unable to use water, firefighters are using unique techniques to put out the blaze and will continue to use high flow water to help cool off the batteries, and then plan to smother it with cement.

“We’re going to cover it with cement and smother that fire,” Steffas said. “Once we put cement down, we hope that’s going to smother it.”

The use of the high flow water led to questions about water runoff, but the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has put monitors into use around Morris to ensure that water supplies remain safe, and that runoff doesn’t make its way into the nearby Illinois River. Similar devices were recently used around a chemical plant fire, which erupted in Rockton earlier this month and led to several days of evacuations around the site of the blaze.

Meanwhile, residents have been able to go back home and get things from their houses, but evacuation orders remain in place.

Hotels in the area are largely booked up, and shelters remain open. Police from surrounding communities are stationed around evacuated areas, helping block off roads and keeping non-residents from gaining access to the area.

Officials were unaware that the building contained the highly-flammable lithium ion batteries, and a disaster proclamation was issued on Wednesday to free up funds to address issues surrounding the fire.

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