MILWAUKEE—A raging grease fire has spread across the southern half of Wisconsin and into the neighboring states of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, killing at least eight and leaving hundreds injured or missing after the intense heat and acrid odor of charred pork and cheese-filled breading overwhelmed the region.
Six of the dead reportedly tried to put out the grease flames with water, causing the fire to spread; two others perished after running back into their burning homes to save bacon still cooking on their stoves.
By Tuesday evening, more than 700,000 acres of Midwestern greaseland—including tens of thousands of patio grills, outdoor beer gardens, supper-club kitchens, and barbecue pits—had been destroyed in the blaze.
Beloit, WI Fire Chief Paul Tolley said the fire was spreading faster than crews could react.
“The main problem is it’s being fed at every turn. The homes and businesses here are oversaturated with corn dogs, melted cheese, and any number of deep-fried items,” Tolley said. “Every time we think we have it under control, it hits a Hardee’s and everything turns to chaos.”
Officials said the grease blaze began after a Dodgeville, WI resident attempted to submerge an entire 21-pound turkey in a makeshift deep fryer Sunday. The fire then leapt rapidly from pancake house to pancake house, intensifying when flames reached a dense patch of diners at the peak of the brunch rush, which Dodgeville Fire Chief Ed Bouchard called “the worst possible timing.”
“With the fact that the nearby park was still greasy from Saturday’s brat fest, the situation quickly turned ugly,” Bouchard said. “My crews simply did not have the baking-soda reserves to contain it.”
The fire fanned out in all directions from the area, cutting a swath through truck stops, doughnut shops, and even mini-golf concession stands.
While most residents have fled to leaner ground, some have stayed behind to coat their homes in a flour, egg, and milk mixture in the hopes that it will protect the interior from the flames.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who recommended that citizens only deep-fry when absolutely necessary, said Tuesday that the fire could “cripple the economic and meal-time power of Illinois and the rest of America’s Grease Belt for a generation.”
Experts have warned for years that the region was overdue for a disaster of this kind, saying that decades of poor grease management and a culture of fried and heavily buttered food created a highly incendiary “grease core” spread across thousands of homes, restaurants, and offices. Landfills overflowing with greasy waxed paper and cardboard only added to the danger.
“It would have taken enormous discipline and fortitude on the part of Midwesterners to change their combustible eating habits,” said Iowa State University Professor of animal-rendering sciences Anita Close. “Unfortunately, these are unrealistic expectations.”
Officials say the lack of rain has helped contain the blaze, but are worried that even light showers passing over the area could be disastrous.
“This fire could very well spatter south into the heart of fried-chicken and waffle country, or up to the cheesesteak districts of the Northeast,” Tolley said. “If that happens, God help us all.”