MORRIS, Ill. (AP) — Toxic fumes and smoke from a burning former paper mill in northern Illinois that officials had believed was long abandoned but actually contained massive amounts of lithium batteries prompted officials to extend an evacuation order into Thursday for residents in the area.
The fire that started in Morris around midday Tuesday prompted city officials to order the evacuation of 3,000-4,000 people in some 950 nearby homes, a school, church and small businesses.
The fire continued to burn Thursday morning about 70 miles (115 kilometers) southwest of Chicago, and residents now will not be allowed to return home until 9 p.m. Thursday, officials said. An earlier order was to end at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Lithium batteries have exploded inside the building and fire officials have said they decided to let the blaze burn out because they fear trying to extinguish it could trigger more explosions.
The building — to the surprise of the fire department and other city agencies — was being used to store nearly 100 tons of lithium batteries ranging in size from cellphone batteries to large car batteries.
Mayor Chris Brown has said the city didn’t know the building was being used to store batteries until it caught fire, and that he knows very little about Superior Battery, the company that owns them.
Company representatives were not invited to a Wednesday news conference about the fire, officials said.
The mayor said the police department will conduct an investigation about the storage of the batteries and that other agencies, including the state fire marshal and the Illinois Attorney General’s office, have already been contacted.
The Morris fire came two weeks after explosions and a massive blaze at a chemical plant near Rockton, an Illinois town along the Wisconsin border, forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes for several days. Nobody at the plant or the surrounding community was injured by the June 13 fire that officials later determined was started accidentally during maintenance work.