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Chemtool plant in Illinois continues to burn after explosion

Firefighters respond to a large fire at a Chemtool plant, and local officials call for evacuations in the area.

The chemical fire at the plant which produces lubricants, grease products and other fluids has prompted local evacuations. [Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP]
The chemical fire at the plant which produces lubricants, grease products and other fluids has prompted local evacuations. [Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP]

An explosion at a northern Illinois chemical plant Monday morning sparked enormous fires that sent flames and huge plumes of thick black smoke high into the air and debris raining onto the ground, prompting evacuations and fires that could burn for days.

On 7am local time (12:00 GMT), Monday emergency crews rushed to the scene of the fire near Rockton, northwest of Chicago, at Chemtool Inc., a company that manufactures lubricants, grease products and other fluids, and is, according to the company, the largest manufacturer of grease in the Americas.

Rockton Fire Department Chief Kirk Wilson and an official from Chemtool’s parent company, Lubrizol Corp said about 70 employees were evacuated safely from the plant, and two firefighters had suffered minor injuries.

The plumes became so big they were being picked up on weather radar. Wilson said there was “no danger to air quality at ground level”.

Wilson said firefighters had stopped using water to extinguish the blaze to prevent an “environmental nightmare” if the runoff were to enter the nearby Rock River.

It could be “several days” before the fluids that caught fire burn out, he said.

“We can’t speculate how long it will take to put out the fire,” he said. ”We ask that the public be patient with us.”

Wilson said on Tuesday an industrial firefighting crew had arrived and was digging trenches to protect the Rock River from any spillages. Absorbent booms were also placed on the river to block runoff.

Crews from 84 fire departments responded – some fanning out to handle spot fires, grass fires, and burning debris that the wind pushed into the community. Wilson said those fires were caused by burning pieces of cardboard boxes and chunks of wooden pallets, not chemicals falling from the sky.

Once the river was secured, firefighters could use foam to put out the burning oil. Wilson said there were half a million gallons that could take a week to burn out on their own.

Trisha Diduch, planning and development administrator for Rockton, estimated about 1,000 people were affected by the evacuation order.

There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Alyssa King, who lives in an apartment less than a kilometre from the site, said she woke up to what sounded like slamming doors.

“It woke me up. It was shaking the whole apartment building,” said King, who had been at home with her 8-year-old daughter.

Emergency crews are battling massive fires at a northern Illinois chemical plant that exploded into flames. [Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP]
Emergency crews are battling massive fires at a northern Illinois chemical plant that exploded into flames. [Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP]
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About 1,000 people are affected by the mandatory evacuation order around the plant in Rockton, Illinois near the border with Wisconsin. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
About 1,000 people are affected by the mandatory evacuation order around the plant in Rockton, Illinois near the border with Wisconsin. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Other than two minor injuries to firefighters, no others were reported, and the company says everyone on site is "safe and accounted for". [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Other than two minor injuries to firefighters, no others were reported, and the company says everyone on site is "safe and accounted for". [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Fire officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of all homes and businesses surrounding the plant, affecting about 1,000 people that will remain in effect until fire crews can get the blaze under control. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Fire officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of all homes and businesses surrounding the plant, affecting about 1,000 people that will remain in effect until fire crews can get the blaze under control. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
The fire plumes were so big they could be seen on weather radar -  the smoke presented “no danger to air quality at ground level” said Rockton Fire Department Chief Kirk Wilson. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
The fire plumes were so big they could be seen on weather radar - the smoke presented “no danger to air quality at ground level” said Rockton Fire Department Chief Kirk Wilson. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
More than 80 fire departments were on the scene to fight the fire at the plant and smaller ones caused by falling debris. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
More than 80 fire departments were on the scene to fight the fire at the plant and smaller ones caused by falling debris. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
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The fire involves a half-million gallons of oil and threatens the nearby Rock River. Firefighters stopped using water on the flames, to prevent runoff. Foam is expected to be used to put out the flames once trenches and absorbent booms give the river protection. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
The fire involves a half-million gallons of oil and threatens the nearby Rock River. Firefighters stopped using water on the flames, to prevent runoff. Foam is expected to be used to put out the flames once trenches and absorbent booms give the river protection. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Fires continued burning Tuesday at the chemical plant near the Wisconsin border, about 95 miles northwest of Chicago. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Fires continued burning Tuesday at the chemical plant near the Wisconsin border, about 95 miles northwest of Chicago. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Local resident Alyssa King said after she walked outside to see black smoke and what appeared to be pieces of cardboard boxes and “small chunks of the building” falling from the sky, she called a police non-emergency line. “You gotta go,” she said she was told. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]
Local resident Alyssa King said after she walked outside to see black smoke and what appeared to be pieces of cardboard boxes and “small chunks of the building” falling from the sky, she called a police non-emergency line. “You gotta go,” she said she was told. [Scott Olson/Getty Images]