BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
Mother Nature helped signify an end to almost three days of fire fighting Friday as an afternoon shower dropped rain at the scene of Hoopeston’s largest fire in history.
The event was a welcome change in the sky as residents had watched flames and thick black smoke tower above the city since Wednesday morning when fire broke out at J & R Used Tires, located along Illinois Route 1 near South Market Street.
As many as 24 departments and up to 150 firefighters were called to J & R Used Tires after an alarm at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when a fire started in the building. The blaze engulfed the three-block building, sending out a tower of smoke that forced the evacuation of residents west of the fire.
Hoopeston Chief Cliff Crabtree announced Friday afternoon that firefighters have stopped putting water on the rubble of the business a little after 2 p.m. Volunteers were taking down tents at the command center and crews were beginning to pack away fire equipment.
Firefighters were on scene for around 60 hours this week, Crabtree said, with some only leaving to get a few hours rest during that time, He said everyone was looking forward to a shower and rest.
“I imagine it’s going to be a quiet night in probably 150 firefighters’ homes,” he said.
Officials planned to turn over the fire scene to J & R Used Tires owners, who were then expected to allow an excavation company to come in and begin cleanup at the site.
A fence is expected to be placed around the building to keep trespassers out. Crabtree cautioned the walls that were still standing may not be structurally sound.
“There ‘s basically nothing holding them up,” he said. “The roof is gone, there’s no infrastructure left in the building. You have an 8-inch concrete wall standing there and some of them are 100 years old.”
Crabtree said Hoopeston will not keep a manned fire truck on-site to watch for hot spots, instead planning to respond to any hot spot reports as they are called in.
With the fire officially out, efforts are now turning to the clean up for both the city and the residents.
According to Crabtree, it has not been determined whether large pieces of ash sent flying as a result of the fire are considered hazardous materials. The EPA has sent away samples to be tested, the results of which are not expected until next week.
He asked residents, for the time being, leave the ash material alone.
“If it is a hazardous material, the Illinois EPA is going to get a contractor to clean that up,” he said. “They will set up a perimeter and some guidelines to do that. At this time they have not done that.”
Crabtree also said an attorney has been hired by the insurance provider for J & R Used Tires to handle claims residents have regarding cleaning their homes that were in the line of smoke from the fire.
The attorney’s information and a claim number were expected to be distributed by the City of Hoopeston early next week.
“There is no guarantee that the financial help is going to be there to clean your home,” Crabtree said. “The site is quite large and clean up is going to be quite expensive.”
State EPA officials were still working Friday afternoon to clean up water that had flowed from storm drains at the fire scene to a retention pond south of Hoopeston. The pond accumulated 4 million gallons of water.
Environmental officials were running the water through filters to clean it of pollutants before allowing it to flow downstream.
As of Friday afternoon, all streets except for Maple Street in front of the fire scene were re-opened to traffic.