Fire at commercial building prompts evacuations in Morris

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MORRIS, Ill. — Emergency crews remain on the scene of commercial building fire in Morris that has forced residents out of their homes at least through 9 p.m. Wednesday, according to officials.

The fire is in the 900 block of East Benton Street in a building that contains electronic lithium batteries for cell phones and other devices. 

Officials say a business called “Superior Batteries” caught fire at an old paper mill property that shut down in 1980. Part of the structure was demolished, but some smaller buildings were used for storage on the property. 

“We’re dealing with between 80 to 100 tons of lithium batteries,” said Tracey Steffes, Deputy Chief at Morris Fire Protection & Ambulance District. “So around 180,000 pounds to 200,000 pounds of lithium batteries. These batteries range in size from your cellphone to a little bigger than a car battery. And as these batteries get wet, they short out and ignite and explode, and that’s the problem we’re having.”

Officials said putting water on lithium is not an option.

“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 in this fire,” Steffes added.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has also advised Morris officials to prohibit the use of foam repellants, citing that any liquid could make the blaze worse.

Steffes adds that crews have considered using road salt to suffocate the plumes of smoke.

As a result of the blaze, thousands of residents on the East Side of Morris have been evacuated.

The Grundy County Administration Building on Union Street and the VFW Building on Route 47 will house displaced residents. The Red Cross is also assisting.

“I have four dogs,” said concerned Morris resident Jen Bamonte. “So obviously just the air…what they’re telling us about the fumes and how they can be toxic. So you know, you just worry about that. Don’t want to be anywhere around it.”

Officials fear the fire could burn into the night but do not anticipate the blaze lasting as long as the recent chemical fire in Rockton.

Steffes says the fire is much smaller in scope, but warns that the blaze was preventable.

“We want to know any of our hazards in our community,” he said. “And we know that people store stuff that they don’t always tell us or we know about, but before these fires, I had no idea these batteries were here.”

More than 100 fire and emergency services crews were called to the scene. No injuries have been reported.

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