HOOPESTON — Scores of firefighters from Vermilion and Iroquois counties were battling a blaze that broke out in a large tire-recycling facility Wednesday morning.
Officials fear the fire could burn for hours, maybe even 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.
“We’ve been told this fire will be going on for several days,” Hoopeston Police Chief Mark Drollinger told The News-Gazette 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.”
At midday Wednesday, Hoopeston Fire Chief Cliff Crabtree wasn’t sure how long the fire would burn.
“I expect to be here another 24 to 36 hours,” he said.
Crabtree said the blaze may have been caused when a spark created when an employee was working on an engine ignited some rubber dust.
At the fire’s height, smoke 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“From the very beginning, it’s just been an overwhelming day,” Crabtree said.
At midday Wednesday, the blaze was being fought by departments from Hoopeston, East Lynn, Wellington, Bismarck, Rossville, Rankin, Potomac, Bluegrass, Danville, Milford, Watseka and other surrounding areas.
The Danville Fire Department’s hazardous materials team was also on the scene monitoring the air quality.
“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 said, adding the building was filled with tires.
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 going to the pumpers.
The Red Cross and others also set 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.”
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.
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 Wednesday morning to make sure his employees were safe, but he 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.
Reporter Tim Mitchell contributed to this report.