On June 29, in Morris, Illinois, when firefighters were dispatched to a warehouse fire, they encountered a big surprise: a burning warehouse with as many as 200,000 lithium batteries ranging in size from mobile phone batteries to those larger than automobile batteries.

No one knew that the 70,000-square-foot warehouse held thousands of lithium batteries. In fact, city officials reported no permits had been issued.

At a July 2 news briefing, Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District Chief Tracey Steffes called the fire one of the largest lithium battery fires the nation has ever seen. He warned it could take another four weeks for the fire to burn itself out.  

The warehouse owner, Jin Zheng had planned to start a business selling the batteries and solar panels but first put his focus on slowly fixing up the building. He told ABC7Chicago that he intended to fix the leaking roof.

Officials suspect water from that roof may have triggered the battery fire. Lithium is highly volatile and reacts with water by forming lithium hydroxide, a highly flammable hydrogen. In a news conference, Chief Steffes said, “As they get wet, they short out and they ignite and explode. That is the problem we are having. The biggest hazard we have is the smoke and fumes as well as the gas from the fire. Highly poisonous and very deadly.”

Firefighters first used 1,000 pounds of the dry chemical agent Purple K to douse the fire. Steffes said, they were “hoping we could kill it and choke it out. The lithium fire laughed at the Purple-K — didn’t put a dent in it.”

Next firefighters tried dry Portland cement, hoping it would coat the batteries and disrupt their chemical reaction. Chief Steffes said they have used 28 tons of Portland cement to coat the burning batteries—and it seems to be working. Firefighters have never tried this technique before, and whether it will continue to work is anyone’s guess.

Chief Sterres reported that he spoke with a battery expert from Texas who advised that once the batteries begin to decompose, there is little that will stop that process. This thermal runaway does not need oxygen, he said. Moreover, there is a large quantity of unburned batteries in the warehouse that may have been compromised by the heat from the other burning batteries.

Your city may not have a warehouse flying under government radar with a dodgy roof and 200,000 batteries waiting to ignite. But it likely has unknown hazards lying in wait. HazmatNation provides four tips to help hazmat teams prepare for unknown, large-scale incidents before they happen and know what to do once they do occur.  

  1. If you can’t know every hazard, know your first-in area. Technology and a lot of seat time driving (and walking) the district can help map out routes in and out of areas, high-risk exposures like grade schools, industrial sites or hospitals, additional nearby resources, topography and a host of other variables.
  2. Build relationships early. Don’t wait until the incident to know your local resources. Some of your utility folks or public works crews may have a much better handle on the local dangers. They also own equipment you may need. Or they may have contacts within state and federal government or the private sector that will benefit you in an incident. For example, how many fire chiefs have relationships with local cement providers?
  3. Know the basics. When faced with the unexpected, a safe and effective outcome often boils down to doing the basics right. This means being proficient at using things like the ERG and other bread-and-butter tools.
  4. Train in the district. It is easy to rely on the training ground or old, familiar training spots. But getting out in the district will add useful wrinkles to training scenarios and deepen that institutional knowledge of the district.