Local firefighters worked Chemtool fire in Rockton this week

‘Every single person I talked to hadn’t ever seen a bigger fire’


ROCHELLE — While on his way to work in Rockton on Monday, John Rimstidt called his wife.

He told her there wasn’t a cloud in the sky except for one that was strange-looking. 

“Then I realized what it was,” Rimstidt said. “The closer I got, the more I realized how huge it was and how long it would take to put out. I couldn’t comprehend the amount of resources required.”

What Rimstidt saw was the fire at the Chemtool plant in Rockton. The Lynn-Scott-Rock Fire Captain left work later that day to fight the fire, which he said involved 167 departments and 350 firefighters. Departments were called just after 7 a.m. 

The fire burned for over a day and filled the sky with black smoke that could be seen from Rochelle as well as southern Wisconsin. Rockton residents in the area were evacuated due to concerns about air quality.

Before Rimstidt, a Lindenwood resident, arrived, firefighters ceased putting water on the fire due to runoff concerns. Shortly after he arrived, watering resumed and he and another firefighter spent seven hours dumping water. 

“There were 26 tenders dumping,” Rimstidt said. “I was there for one of the explosions. We heard it. There was just a massive black cloud. Every so often there was a fireball. Every single person I talked to hadn’t ever seen a bigger fire. 

The Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) was used to get widespread departments to help with the fire. Rimstidt has been on other large-scale calls, but had never seen as many fire trucks as he did Monday. 

He also saw fireballs going up 200-300 feet and the largest cloud of black smoke he’d ever seen. 

“When I started to see Mt. Morris, Stillman Valley and us getting called, that’s a long way away,” Rimstidt said. “There was equipment there from Bettendorf, Iowa. Hour after hour, the smoke wasn’t dissipating. It was just the sheer volume of everything. You still couldn’t see the building. It was like we weren’t making a dent. We were, but there was no way to tell.”

Rimstidt said there were organizations on scene with coolers of drinks and food. There were doctors on site. There was fuel on site so trucks could be refueled to stay in line to pump water onto the fire. 

Rimstidt said he wasn’t concerned about the chemicals or air quality, as he was upwind from the fire. He had faith in the command officer, who he said had firefighters’ safety as a top priority. Air quality was monitored and the Environmental Protection Agency was on site. 

“We’ve utilized MABAS multiple times for fires and the tornado,” Rimstidt said. “But nothing to this scale. What I learned is MABAS works exactly the way it’s designed to. The system works perfectly. For big and small. You come in, you’re given an assignment, and you do exactly what they say. Everybody did that.”

Hillcrest native Chris Builta is on the rosters of the Lee, Amboy and Rochelle Fire departments. He was called to work the night shift on Monday evening. 

“We got called as a tender strike team,” Builta said. “We brought Lee’s water tanker. We went at 11:15 p.m. with 5-6 other tenders. We did a tender shuttle all evening. I think it was 20,000-something gallons. Some crazy amount. We filled at a hydrant and did that constantly.”

Builta said for a normal structure fire in a town like Rochelle, five departments are usually called. 45 departments were called to Rockton from a 100-mile radius. Builta, who has an interest in logistics, found it interesting to see how smoothly departments worked together. 

One crew from Louisiana that specializes in industrial fires was on scene and flowed more water in 1.5 hours than crews had all night. Builta worked the fire for 12 hours. 

Builta said he was only in the smoke for a couple of minutes. He called the air near the fire “nasty.” Some firefighters had different masks on and did most of the work on the ground. 

The scale of the fire was what stayed with Builta. 

“It was kind of incredible,” Builta said. “I’ve done wildfires and stuff. It was cool to do, having something that large in my backyard. To see it still burning that long after it started, there was still a lot of fire. It was just massive.”