MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: Thousands displaced by lithium fire in Illinois

Published by MAC on 2021-07-03

"It's a little scary, we don't know what got into our house," evacuated resident said.

Nearly 100 tons of lithium batteries were involved in a large industrial fire in southwest suburban Morris, Illinois, that led to emergency evacuations as authorities warned of "highly poisonous" fumes.

Morris Fire Chief, Tracey Steffes, said they have used 28 tons of Portland cement to smother the burning metal. Morris Mayor, Chris Brown, said the city was not aware of the batteries. No injuries had been reported in the incident.

Previous on MAC:

2021-06-19 Ireland: Kildare residents fear lithium battery storage compound

Morris industrial fire evacuation indefinite, 'in check' after use of cement, officials say

Diane Pathieu;-evacuation-extended/10849672/

July 2, 2021

MORRIS, Ill. (WLS) -- Morris officials said the evacuation order for the massive industrial fire will remain in place indefinitely, even as they continue to make progress fighting it.

Official said Thursday morning they "made a lot of progress" using Portland cement mix to fight a massive industrial fire at an abandoned paper mill Thursday and that it is now "in check."

Morris Fire Chief Tracey Steffes said they have used 28 tons of Portland cement to smother the burning lithium batteries and there was no longer any active burning at the site. He said by Wednesday night, there were no more flames or smoke coming from the batteries.

Chief Steffes said that the unconventional method appears to be working, but warned it is possible the batteries could continue burning since they do not need oxygen to burn.

"When we smothered it with the concrete, we're not 100% sure that this thermal runaway is not continuing," Chief Steffes said. "It is probably continuing and hopefully it is going to consume what is left of the batteries underneath then it will be over. But there is a possibility that as this continues that it does break through this Portland cement."

He said firefighters were digging a trench in the lowest corner of the building in case the fire breaks through the cement and water is needed

The evacuation order is in place due to the toxic fumes and smoke emanating from the building, stemming from as many as 200,000 lithium batteries exploding.

Firefighters believed thousands of pounds of lithium have burned out, allowing heavy machinery to tear off portions of the still burning building.

"They took that machine and stripped the front of that building of 150 feet of siding, which gave us our first look inside the building and what we were dealing with," Steffes said.

Before using cement, firefighters tried using a dry chemical to extinguish the fire.

"We brought over 1,000 pounds of Purple-K and we introduced that to the fire hoping we could kill it and choke it out," Steffes said. "The lithium fire laughed at the Purple-K. Didn't put a dent in it."

Steffes said he has consulted with experts throughout the day on how to fight the fire without making it more of an environmental problem than it already is.

The blaze started just before 11:45 a.m. Tuesday at the old Federal Paper Board facility in the 900-block of East Benton Street.

"These batteries range in size of a cell phone to a little bigger than a car battery. As they get wet, they short out and they ignite and explode. That is the problem we are having," Steffes said. "The biggest hazard we have is the smoke and fumes as well as the gas from the fire. Highly poisonous and very deadly."

Morris Mayor Chris Brown said the city was not aware of the batteries.

"To our understanding, we were unaware of the batteries in the warehouse and only came upon it when the firemen started to do their work and push water onto the fire; they've been taking all the precautions necessary to make sure everything is safe and contained," he said.

The building's owner Jin Zheng said he was on the scene minutes after the fire started, but he was unable to get inside. He said the thick black smoke coming from the building was fueled by explosions of thousands of lithium batteries he had inside.

Zheng said he was storing supplies in the 70,000-square-foot warehouse because he was planning to open a solar power business by the end of the year.

"I have to say sorry," Zheng said.

Zheng said he has lost his life savings in the fire. He planned to get insurance after he opened the business. He also planned to have repairs done to the building's roof later this week, and he believes water dripping onto the batteries could have sparked the explosions and fire.

"It's not that lithium battery fires are new, it's just this quantity is something that hasn't been experienced, at least regionally here," Steffes said.

Tuesday's fire comes less than one month after the massive blaze at the Chemtool grease plant in Rockton. Special resources still in the area from that fire are now being utilized in Morris.

Officials evacuated the southeast side of Morris.

"We have determined that people will not return to their homes until the fire is much more controlled, if not completely out," said Michelle Pruin, with the Grundy County Health Department.

With ever-changing conditions, flames still roaring and toxic chemicals possibly seeping out into the air, families are out of their homes for at least another night.

"We don't have clothes, we don't have what we need here," evacuee Ana Luna said. "Pretty much we are just waiting to see."

Luna's family is sheltered where she works at a nearby Holiday Inn. She ran home and grabbed her kids Tuesday at a moment's notice.

"I have a lot of things at home that I need here but I didn't bring it because I didn't have enough time to pack everything," Fabian Luna added.

They're making the best of it, celebrating grandma's birthday huddled in a hotel room.

The Illinois EPA is monitoring air quality from several locations around town. At this point, they are planning no further evacuations. Steffes said Wednesday that air quality tests were "favorable."

The Grundy County Sheriff's Office said they are assisting with the response and the evacuations. The Grundy County Administration Building at 1320 Union St. is being used as a reception area.

Officials are asking that residents self-evacuate if they see or smell smoke and then report where that took place.

"It's a little scary, especially because we don't know what got into our house," evacuated resident Areli Soberano said.

Residents wanting to report smoke or smell or ask questions about shelter or the evacuation instructions may call 815-941-3408.

"We are going to be here for the long haul," Steffes said.

The Red Cross is supplying food and water to the more than 300 first responders battling the fire. Red Cross volunteers are also working to set up a reception center and shelter for those who have been evacuated at First Christian Church, 455 W. Southmor Road in Morris.

Thousands Displaced Due to Industrial Fire in Morris; Evacuations Expected to Continue Until Wednesday
Residents of Morris in Illinois evacuated Tuesday after an industrial fire that involved lithium-ion batteries occurred in the city.

Jess Smith

Jun 30, 2021

Emergency crews are still working Wednesday in the clearing operations after an industrial fire involving lithium-ion batteries in Morris. The evacuation has been deemed mandatory in portions of the city of Morris for 24 hours.

The Morris Fire Department received a call at 11:42 a.m. Tuesday regarding a fire at the 900 block of East Benton Street. Firefighters responded to a fire inside an old Federal Paper Board building, a facility that was being used as storage of a large number of lithium batteries, NBC Chicago reported.

The company is now at the building called Superior Battery. Located inside the building were around 80 to 100 tons of lithium batteries on the premises.

According to CBS Chicago, local authorities stated that the evacuation was prompted by lithium batteries catching fire. The burned batteries produced smoke with dangerous particulates due to chemical reactions.

Due to the health risk, officials have evacuated residents on the southeast side of Morris, an area that started from Washington Street as far east as Evergreen Cemetery or the Cemetery Road to the east to Route 47 to the west, and from the railroad tracks on the north to the river on the south.

Morris officials advised residents that if they needed a place to stay, the Grundy County Administration Building located at 1320 Union St. is a reception area. The city of Morris is the county seat of Grundy County.

The evacuation is mandatory for 24 hours and is expected to end at 9 p.m. Wednesday, but it could be extended depending on the conditions and assessment of the emergency crew during their clearing operation.

Residents were also advised to report if they can see and smell smoke. They were advised to immediately self-evacuate and call (815) 941-3408 once they detected smoke.

Furthermore, because the Morris industrial fire involved a lithium fire, emergency crew cannot add water to the flames during their clearing operation. Lithium explodes when it comes into contact with water, which means they need to smother the flames.

Nearly 100 Tons of Lithium Batteries Involved in Large Morris Industrial Fire

June 29, 2021

Nearly 100 tons of lithium batteries were involved in a large industrial fire in southwest suburban Morris Tuesday that led to emergency evacuations and a large-scale response as authorities warned of "highly poisonous" and "very deadly" fumes.

Fire officials initially responded to the blaze around noon in the 900 block of East Benton, where they quickly started fighting flames. But their efforts took a turn when they learned that inside the building on fire were between 80 and 100 tons of lithium batteries, according to Tracey Steffes, fire chief of the Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance District.

"We were advised that we're dealing with between 80 and 100 tons of lithium batteries, so around 180,000 pounds to 200,000 pounds of lithium batteries," Steffes said. "These batteries range in size from your cell phone to a little bigger than a car battery and as these batteries get wet, they short out and they ignite and explode. And that's the problem we're having. So 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 for this fire."

Firefighters were forced to back away from the building and stop using water.

"The biggest hazard we're dealing with right now is the smoke or the fumes from this fire," Steffes said. "This gas is highly poisonous, it's very deadly."

Emergency evacuations were ordered in parts of Morris due to the dangerous fumes.

The Grundy County IL Emergency Management Agency ordered anyone who lives in the 900 blocks of Benton, Douglas or Armstrong streets as well as those who live on East Street to "please evacuate your residence now."

"There is an industrial fire to the south," the alert read.

Those in need of a place to go were urged to head to the Grundy County Administration building located at 1320 Union St.

No injuries had been reported in the incident, according to Steffes, who credited resources brought to Illinois due to a chemical plant fire in Rockton with helping in the latest situation.

"One good thing about the Rockton fire is there's been some resources very close to us that would not have been here if the Rockton fire hadn't happened," Steffes said.

He noted, however, that the Morris incident is on a "much, much smaller scale" and "different" from the Rockton plant fire.
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