HOOPESTON — Scores of firefighters from Vermilion and Iroquois counties continue to battle a blaze which broke out in large tire recycling facility early Wednesday morning.
Some officials fear the fire could burn for days.
Firefighters were called to the fire at J&R Used Tire Service Inc. at 103 Maple St. at 5:20 a.m. When they arrived, the south end of the 400,000-square-foot brick facility was engulfed in flames.
“From the very beginning, it’s just been an overwhelming day,” Hoopeston Fire Chief Cliff Crabtree said around 11 a.m., adding firefighters were just starting to bring the fire under control at that time.
“We knew when we first got on the scene that we were going to have to take a defensive approach because of the type of fire it was,” he continued, adding the building was filled with tires. “Unfortunately, in this circumstance, … you lose the whole building.”
About five employees of the business, owned by Rodney and Janie Rogers, were at work when the fire broke out, but they managed to escape without injury, said Lance Smith, Rodney Rogers’ brother. He said one man was taken to a local hospital for possible smoke inhalation, but he was released later in the morning.
Crabtree wasn’t sure how long the fire would burn.
“I expect to be here another 24 to 36 hours,” he said.
Other officials said tire fires could burn for several days.
Shortly after the fire broke out, police evacuated homes and apartment buildings on Maple, Market and Lincoln streets, First Avenue and parts of Second and Third avenues not quite a mile west of the recycling facility, Police Chief Mark Drollinger said. Residents were taken to emergency shelters at Hoopeston Area High School and several local churches.
Drollinger said portions of those streets along with Illinois 9 (also Orange Street) near the fire scene are closed to traffic, and only fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are allowed through.
Drollinger wasn’t certain how long residents would remain evacuated or when the streets would reopen to the public.
Ameren also cut power to parts of the city, although officials said most of the power had been restored later in the morning.
The Danville Fire Department’s hazardous materials team was also on the scene monitoring the air quality.
Rogers said he got the call at his home just after the fire started and his first concern was that his employees were all okay. He said his main concern after that became the safety of all the firefighters battling the blaze.
“My prayers are with all the people in Hoopeston, the families and the firefighters, and thankful for everyone who has pitched in,” he said. “I’m sorry for what’s happening to Hoopeston right now; sorry for all the inconvenience this is causing. We are going to do everything we can to make things right. This is like my worst nightmare.”
Rogers said 30 full-time employees worked there, but some of the workers start early.
He said he didn’t want to speculate on what may have started the fire, but it appears it was something to do with what someone was working on.
He said some of the machines operate at very high speeds. Rogers said he does have insurance, but he’s not sure it is going to be enough to cover the entire cost of the cleanup.
Rogers said he met with all his employees in Potomac Wednesday morning and told them he would do everything he could to keep the business going.
“My number one concern was them and their families and doing all I can to keep their jobs,” said Rogers, who added that his business offers good-paying jobs from $25,000 to $55,000 a year.
Rogers said he spent most of Wednesday talking to insurance officials and coordinating a restart of the business by Friday if the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency gives him approval to restart. He said other recyclers have stepped up to offer assistance to keep his business going that collects tires from almost 1,000 clients in Illinois and Indiana.
“I’m going to do all I can to keep things rolling,” said Rogers, who explained that the facility had a lot of tires but had even more piles of shredded tires. He said when the business starts up again, he will not keep as many tires and shredded tires stockpiled. He said they will go back to the way they operated when he originally started the business, quickly processing and sending out what they bring into the facility.
“There will be no storing of tires. It all will be processed and gone,” he said.
Smoke from the fire could be seen as far away as the Bismarck area, about 20 miles south; it looked like dark blue thunderclouds rolling across the horizon. Closer to town, the smell of burning rubber filled the air.
The blaze was being fought by departments from Hoopeston, East Lynn, Wellington, Bismarck, Rossville, Rankin, Potomac, Bluegrass, Danville, Milford, Watseka and other surrounding areas. Firefighters were not only attacking the fire, but also hauling water in from the city, a local bottled-water company, Hoopeston Foods, East Lynn Fertilizer and Crop Production Services, Crabtree said. He also said area farmers were trucking in water in semis. They filled large portable water tanks at various locations to keep a continuous supply of water to the pumpers.
he Red Cross and others were also setting up air-conditioned tents to keep firefighters from being overcome with heat exhaustion.
Residents Carie Brooks and Christie Goodrum organized supply stations with water, ice, Gatorade, food and other supplies donated by numerous residents, businesses, churches and organizations. Volunteers shuttled the supplies to firefighters and other emergency personnel in golf carts.
“The only thing more overwhelming than the fire is the support from the community,” Crabtree said. “Phones have been ringing off the hook from people wanting to donate. They’re taking water and sandwiches around to people on golf carts so the guys on the line don’t have to leave. I can’t thank the people of Hoopeston and the surrounding areas enough.”
Drollinger said that police had been directing traffic around the perimeter of the fire site since 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“We’ve been told this fire will be going on for several days,” Drollinger said on Wednesday night.
“For this city, it is probably the largest fire Hoopeston has ever seen. It has posed challenges for first responders since it is happening in a residential area.
Ted Fisher, director of the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency, said a voluntary evacuation order had been issued for people who lived in the area of the fire.
“Along with the fire in Rossvile, his is one of the biggest fires I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Fisher said that the Red Cross had opened some shelters at the Hoopeston Multi Agency Service Center and at some of the community’s churches to provide a place for displaced people to stay while firefighters battle the fire.
“There are a lot of volunteers helping out at the shelters,” Fisher said on Wednesday night. “We are not sure when people will be able to go back to their homes.”
Smith said his brother and sister-in-law started the tire recycling business in Rankin about four years ago. They moved it into the old FMC plant about two years later.
Smith said the company, which currently has 38 employees, is one of the largest scrap tire haulers and recyclers in the state and has 800 customers in Illinois and Indiana. The company recycles car, semitrailer truck and tractor tires, separates the rubber from metal and other materials, shreds and granulates the rubber and turns it into playground surfaces and mulch, among other products. He said the semi tires are also used to create caution barrels used by road construction crews.
While Smith wasn’t sure how many tons of tires were in the facility, he said the tires were separated by type and located throughout the facility, which is probably why the fire spread so quickly.
Smith said employees noticed the fire shortly after 5 a.m. and immediately called 911. They also tried to put out the flames with fire extinguishers and a hose attached to an on-site water tank.
But “it took off so quick,” said Smith, who doesn’t know how the fire started. “Water is not really good for extinguishing rubber fires.”
Smith said Rogers, a former Potomac mayor, was on the scene earlier in the morning to make sure his employees were safe but had to go home.
“He was too distraught,” Smith said. While the fire destroyed the building, high-priced equipment and tires, Smith said, Rogers was more concerned about his staff. “The reason he wants to get this going again so quick is so these guys can feed their families.”
Longtime Hoopeston residents recalled a fire in a downtown motel and another in a clothing store, also downtown. This, they said, is by far the worst they’ve seen.
“Those fires were bad, but they were nothing like this,” said Rick Moore, a 61 year resident.
Moore was drinking his morning coffee when he heard the fire call come over his scanner.
“I looked outside and thought there was a storm,” he said, recalling seeing dark black clouds rolling overhead. “Then I smelled rubber burning.
When he heard the scanner say tires were on fire, he said “I knew it was the tire place.”
Moore and his friend, Bruce Inman, had gathered with dozens of residents and passers-by to watch the blaze.
“This is the worst fire I’ve seen in my life,” said Inman, a 51-year resident