November 13, 2014

Data reveals fire hotspots in Champaign and Urbana; causes of fires vary

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Jeremy Leevey, fire prevention officer for the Urbana Fire Department at the campus fire station on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Jeremy Leevey, fire prevention officer for the Urbana Fire Department at the campus fire station on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Rebecca Jacobs/For CU-CitizenAccess.org — When it comes to fires involving buildings in the twin cities, there are six hot spots.

Three of them are in Champaign and three in Urbana.

The hot spots are areas where fires have frequently occurred. They were identified through an analysis by CU-CitizenAccess.org of fire data from Jan. 2009 to Aug. 2014. During that time there were 267 building fires in Champaign and 145 building fires in Urbana.

In Champaign, one such area is by the University of Illinois and is bordered by Green Street, Oak Street, Gregory Drive and Wright Street. A second is an area west of the University and is bordered by Bradley Avenue, Prospect Avenue, Kirby Avenue and Duncan Road. A third, more recent, hotspot is near Marketplace Mall.

In Urbana, one hotspot is at Flex-N-Gate Corporation Guardian West Division. The second hotspot is located along Philo Road, and the third area is around Prairie and Weaver parks.

Cooking dangers

Overall, the top identified cause of fires in both Champaign and Urbana was “cooking materials,” which reflects national trends.

In fact, cooking continues to be the leading cause of civilian fire injuries among younger people nationally.

“People age 20 to 34 have a 50 percent higher chance of being injured in a cooking fire than does the general public of all ages,” according to the National Fire Prevention Association.

Champaign Fire Marshal John Koller said alcohol consumption by students can contribute to the fires. He also said many college students are living on their own for the first time and are beginning to cook for themselves, which can contribute to the number of fires.

“Don’t come home and put a pizza in the oven after you’ve been out all night; you’re more apt to fall asleep,” said Koller.

Alcohol and cooking aren’t the only factors in play. Koller emphasized that disposing of smoking materials improperly at the campus hotspot can cause small fires, especially on apartment balconies.

Koller also pointed out that “it’s certainly not just students” making these errors. Cooking and smoking can cause fires in homes of all income levels, but income can be a factor.

Eddie Bain of the Illinois Fire Service Institute said people in lower-income neighborhoods face more fire issues, either because the newest detection systems aren’t in their homes or they can’t afford to fix problems.

He said early detection systems make can prevent damage and deaths.

Early detection systems include smoke detectors hardwired into the house. When one goes off, all others are set off – which is a feature in newer homes.

The Champaign and Urbana fire departments try to combat those issues by giving away free smoke detectors to people who need them throughout the year.

Fire officials say these early detection systems are “imperative” in newer homes because the materials used to build them are petroleum based and lightweight, making it easy for fire to spread.

Jeremy Leevey, fire prevention officer with the Urbana Fire Department, also said that older homes being remodeled can be at risk for fire. The old electrical wiring can meet new wiring in remodels, which may result in fire.

Leevey explained that the newer home systems came as a result from newer codes.

“All the codes are written because something bad has happened at some point in history,” Leevey said.

Extension cords

Extension cords are another common reason for fires.

Urbana Fire Marshal Phillip Edwards said that people think they can use extension cords connected to surge protectors, and that they will turn off if it gets too hot. But Edwards said heat can slowly build in the extension cord, gradually leading to a fire.

“It’s not a heat protector, it’s a surge protector,” said Edwards.

Edwards said he had a case where clothes were stacked on an extension cord that was pinched between a washing machine and the wall. There was not a fire, “but it got so smoky that if they had got in there 10 or 15 minutes later it may have actually caused a fire.”

Leevey said that electrical safety is the biggest issue he faces in preventing fires at the University. On campus, he sees cheap extension cords overloading outlets all the time.

Leevey explained the situation is like trying to fit a softball into a small cup. There is too much electricity trying to go into the cord.

“That’s the easiest way to start a fire,” he said.

Hoarding can make electrical problems worse. Leevey pointed out that in more houses today, “people have severe hoarding problems.”

“That’s a threat to us and the people who live there,” Leevey said.