BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
A sunny morning turned dark quickly Wednesday for Hoopeston residents as a large fire consumed a used tire business.
Firefighters were called around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday to J & R Used Tire Service, located along Illinois Route 9 just west of South Market Street in Hoopeston. The tower of smoke emerging from the three-block-long building forced evacuations in a five-block area west of the business as well as in the row of houses immediately to the east of the site.
Evacuees were sent to the Hoopeston Multi-Agency as well two local churches. Juanita McElhaney, who lives just two blocks from the fire, was drinking coffee Wednesday morning with fellow evacuee Helen Scheeler at the Multi-Agency.
McElhaney said she was in her robe when emergency officials knocked on her door to tell her she would have to leave her home.
“We don’t care what you look like, just come out of there,” she recalled the person saying. She added the tall tower of smoke “came right over my house.”
By mid-morning the smoke tower remained visible from almost 13 miles away.
Hoopeston Fire Chief Cliff Crabtree said Wednesday morning firefighters immediately took a defensive approach to the fire. Water and a foam were used to fight the fire, as well as heavy machinery.
At a late afternoon press conference, Crabtree said firefighters would dump water on the fire well into the night and today. He said water would continue to be shuttled in using tanker trucks.
Estimates on how much water already had been used on the fire as of Wednesday afternoon ranged into the millions of gallons.
In addition, Crabtree said crews would continue to try to remove metal from inside the structure, of which only the walls remained. Removing the metal would allow firefighters access to the tires underneath the debris.
Lance Smith, general manager for J & R Used Tires, said that except for an office area, tires were located throughout the building according to size and type. According to the Illinois EPA, a total of 200,000 used tires, or roughly 2,500 tons, were on-site at the time of the fire.
Materials continued to burn into Wednesday night. Crabtree indicated firefighters would still be on the scene tonight.
“If we’re out of here at this time tomorrow I’ll be really happy,” he said at the Wednesday afternoon press conference. He estimated firefighters could be on the scene for as much as 36 hours.
Early investigations determined the blaze started as a result of a spark caused by a J & R employee working on a motor.
The employee was not injured, although another J & R worker was treated and released at Hoopeston Community Memorial Hospital as a result of smoke inhalation.
No firefighters had been injured or needed medial treatment.
Emergency workers were attempting to confirm Wednesday evening whether residents evacuated from their homes could return. Crabtree said state and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials were starting with the farthest location and working in street by street to monitor air conditions.
He estimated an apartment building just a block from the fire and in the direct line with the smoke probably would not return until some time today.
The American Red Cross set up an overnight shelter at First Church of God in Hoopeston for residents unable to return to their homes overnight.
Three aerial trucks from Hoopeston, Watseka and Danville fire departments were located on the south, east and north sides of the building to spray the roof of the engulfed building and homes east of the building to prevent the fire jumping across the alley to those homes.
Overall, 16 area fire departments responded with mutual aid for the 17-man Hoopeston Fire Department. In addition, nine members of Danville Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team were called to the scene.
Crabtree said Wednesday afternoon that plans for the next 12 hours called for sending some of the departments home for rest. Some of those personnel will return later to allow for Hoopeston firefighters to get a break.
He called Wednesday’s blaze the “biggest in Hoopeston’s history.”
According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, J & R Used Tire Service is licensed to accept and process used tires as well as transport the tires. Large piles of tires were located at the south end of the property in a fenced-in area off of Route 9.
Smith estimated losses could total more than $10 million.
J & R will not open shop someplace else anytime soon. The Illinois EPA issued a statement late Wednesday indicating it had requested the Illinois Attorney General’s Office seek a court order asking J & R to cease on-site work until the company, among other things, hired an environmental consultant to remedy on- and off-site issues caused by the fire.
J & R had several permit violations during a February inspection, including not providing Hoopeston police and fire with an emergency response plan.
Crabtree said water run-off concerns raised by the IEPA during the blaze prompted officials to set up dikes in a retention pond south of Hoopeston where water from that location would flow via storm drains.
It had not been determined as of Wednesday night the future of that water in the retention pond, Crabtree said.
Hoopeston’s water supply, overall, was in good condition despite the blaze with no plans for a boil order.
According to the EPA, tires that catch fire break down into hazardous compounds including gases, heavy metals and oil. The average passenger car tire is estimated to produce more than two gallons of oil when burned.
Commercial-News correspondent Carol Hicks contributed to this report.