Evacuation order extended in Morris as industrial fire continues to burn

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MORRIS, Ill. — Thousands of people in Morris are still out of their homes as firefighters allow a hazardous materials fire burn itself out.

Emergency crews were on the scene of a commercial building fire that has forced about 5,000 residents out of their homes Wednesday, according to officials. The evacuation, originally set to end at 9 p.m. Wednesday, was extended 24 hours, to 9 p.m. Thursday.

The fire is in the 900 block of East Benton Street in a building that contains electronic lithium batteries for cell phones and other devices. 

Officials say a business called “Superior Batteries” caught fire at an old paper mill property that shut down in 1980. Part of the structure was demolished, but some smaller buildings were used for storage on the property. 

“We’re dealing with between 80 to 100 tons of lithium batteries,” said Tracey Steffes, Deputy Chief at Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance District. “So around 180,000 pounds to 200,000 pounds of lithium batteries. These batteries range in size from your cellphone to a little bigger than a car battery. And as these batteries get wet, they short out and ignite and explode, and that’s the problem we’re having.”

Officials said putting water on lithium is not an option.

“We started our initial attack with water and then we learned very quickly that that was not going to be a good avenue for extinguishment in this fire,” Steffes added.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has also advised Morris officials to prohibit the use of foam repellants, citing that any liquid could make the blaze worse.

Steffes adds that crews have considered using road salt or cement powder to suffocate the plumes of smoke.

As a result of the blaze, thousands of residents on the East Side of Morris have been evacuated.

The Grundy County Administration Building on Union Street and the VFW Building on Route 47 will house displaced residents. The Red Cross is also assisting.

“I have four dogs,” said concerned Morris resident Jen Bamonte. “So obviously just the air…what they’re telling us about the fumes and how they can be toxic. So you know, you just worry about that. Don’t want to be anywhere around it.”

Officials did not anticipate the blaze lasting as long as the recent chemical fire in Rockton.

Steffes says the fire is much smaller in scope, but warns that the blaze was preventable.

“We want to know any of our hazards in our community,” he said. “And we know that people store stuff that they don’t always tell us or we know about, but before these fires, I had no idea these batteries were here.”

“If they were running a business out of there illegally, they should have come to us,” Morris Mayor Chris Brown on Wednesday. “We were just unaware of what was being kept there. We didn’t find out obviously until about 10 minutes after the fire department started putting water on the scene to know that there were batteries in there.”

Air quality testing continues, according to officials, which so far has been favorable. Some residents say they are in no rush to return to their homes, however.

“We don’t want to be rushing back home and then have to turn around and go right back to the hospital because none of us can breathe or we’re having ill effects from something that was at the factory,” said Cecilia Butler, who lives three blocks from the old paper mill in Morris. “We’re just waiting. Just killing time.”

More than 100 fire and emergency services crews were called to the scene. No injuries have been reported.

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