DANVILLE — By early afternoon Thursday, light smoke was still drifting from the site of the massive fire at a tire recycling facility in Hoopeston, but the boiling black clouds that rolled across the sky most of the day Wednesday were gone.
More than 100 firefighters from all over East Central Illinois and west central Indiana fought the huge blaze that started after 5 a.m. Wednesday at J&R Used Tire Service Inc., 103 Maple St., Hoopeston, and caused the evacuation of hundreds of homes and shut down the CSX railroad for 24 hours.
The Illinois fire marshal has ruled the fire was accidental due to static electricity that occurred when employees were working early Wednesday morning, according to Hoopeston Police Chief Mark Drollinger.
Hoopeston Mayor Bill Crusinberry said 23 full-time or volunteer fire departments in the region sent either manpower or equipment or both. And residents, businesses and restaurants in Hoopeston and other parts of the county brought in food, refreshments and other supplies for firefighters.
"Small communities have big hearts," he said.
In addition to the water from hydrants, tanker trucks continually hauled water to the fire site all day and night to ensure all the fire trucks had a continual supply of water. Firefighters worked to protect nearby residences, but on the west side of the building is the CSX rail line, and Crusinberry said some of the railroad ties caught fire. Coupled with the thick black smoke blowing across the line, railroad traffic was halted for 24 hours, backing up trains to the north and the south, Crusinberry said.
By mid-morning Thursday, the fire was suppressed and about 25 to 30 firefighters were still on the scene, continuing to spray water on hot spots as excavators and other heavy equipment pulled out tires and metal sheets from the steel roof that collapsed on the long, rectangular-shaped building that covers 360,000 square feet on the 12-acre site that's surrounded by residential properties.
Crusinberry said after railroad and other officials determined the tracks were OK, train traffic resumed at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, but they moved through town at a crawl for safety reasons.
The tire recycling business, owned by Roger and Janie Rogers, had stockpiled tires and had an even larger amount of shredded rubber sitting in large piles as the business ground the material into various products, like mulch. According to the IEPA website, J&R is one of only two used-tire processors in central Illinois; the other is located in Thomasboro.
Andrew Mason, public information officer with the IEPA, said the agency, along with the U.S. EPA, has been at the scene since Wednesday, continually monitoring the air quality, or particulates. He said anything on fire can create air particles, including the tires, wood or other building materials. Mason said the normal level of particulates expected in a residential neighborhood would be 0.15 milligram per cubic liter. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, levels were five times that, he said, but by midnight, levels had fallen to three times the norm. And by Thursday morning, he said levels had dropped to a point that made agency officials comfortable with lifting the evacuation.
"So, the good news is that conditions are improving," he said. "We are still there and monitoring."
Crusinberry said an area six to seven blocks long and about four blocks wide, totaling 400 to 500 homes, was evacuated by Hoopeston police early Wednesday morning, mostly due to the heavy smoke. He said only six people —the Clayburn family — took advantage of the Red Cross shelter for the night, and others stayed with family or friends, and some may have returned to their homes for the night. He said officials weren't stopping people from returning to their homes Wednesday night.
In a statement Wednesday, the IEPA said it had concerns with the effects the smoke could have on the environment and human health and with runoff contaminating neighboring properties and sewers and storm water systems. The IEPA asked the Illinois attorney general's office on Wednesday to seek a court order that would force the owners to hire an environmental consultant to investigate the site and remove and properly dispose of any remaining waste.
Mason said the concern with runoff is that all the water being sprayed on the site will run into other bodies of water, but a city-owned retention pond is immediately south of the site across Illinois 9, so EPA and city workers worked to direct runoff into that pond. And Crusinberry said workers dammed it to retain the runoff. He said the agency also had portable filters they were using to filter some of it.
Mason said the water in the retention pond will now be tested to determine what to do with it, whether it will need to be chemically treated or removed. He said the EPA will be helping with that.
And once the fire gets to a point where EPA investigators can get in there, Mason said, they will get a better idea of what actually burned and come up with a plan to clean up the site and properly dispose of whatever remains.
Mason said the cleanup could also go beyond the actual fire site. He said after a fire at a scrap yard in Cahokia in April, a court order required power washing of local residents' homes. He said it will be determined if that's appropriate in this case.