Cooking, trash spark dozens of university fires

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Fear Factor Training- Champaign fire department Lt. Mike Kling demonstrates how in just over three minutes fire can build in a room without a sprinkler to students at the Illinois Fire Service Institute on Saturday, September 27, 2014.

By Robert Holly/ — There were 10 university housing fires last year, most of which were caused by cooking gone wrong.

One housing fire, however, was intentionally ignited.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Campus Code Compliance and Fire Safety division detailed the fires in its Annual Fire Safety Report for 2013, which it released at the end of September. The University is required to update the public on campus security and fire safety each year under federal regulations and the Jeanne Clery Act.

“There have been tragic losses of life on college campuses in fires in campus housing,” said Craig Grant, associate director for campus code compliance and fire safety at the University. He pointed out the deadly 2010 fire at Seton Hall in New Jersey as just one example.

From 2011 through last year, there have been at least 46 fires in university housing, according to the report. Besides cooking, fires during that time were also caused by trash, a curling iron, cigarettes, a furnace and a cotton-candy machine.

Nearly all of the fires were minor and caused less than $99 in damages.

A fire that started in Blaisdell Hall in 2011 tallied more damage than any other fire in the last few years. Labeled as a grease fire, it cost somewhere between $1,000 and $9,999 in damages, according to the report.

Of the 46 housing fires listed in the report since 2011, 36 were categorized as “unintentional.” Four fires were classified as “intentional,” including one “burnt paper” fire related to door decorations in Oglesby Hall last year. Origins for the remaining fires were categorized as undetermined.

“Somebody walks down a hallway and takes a lighter out of their pocket,” Grant said. “They might not be thinking of the actual consequences of that act.”

Overall, the University oversees 14 undergraduate residence complexes, each with one to four individual buildings or halls. The University also provides two graduate residence halls and three multi-family apartment complexes.

All university-owned housing includes sprinkler systems, a move stemming from when Illinois legislature passed the Fire Sprinkler Dorm Act in 2004. Under the act, all public universities were required to install sprinkler systems in “current structures as well as newly constructed dormitories” by 2013.

“It buys you the most important thing you need in an emergency, which is time,” Grant said.

Incoming freshmen are required to live in either university housing or private-certified housing throughout their first year of school. While the University does not directly own nor manage the private housing, all private residential buildings must undergo city inspections to ensure fire-safety standards each year.

While living in university dorms and other housing, the University forbids students from using toaster ovens, George-Foreman-style grills, halogen lamps, candles, incense and flammable liquids. If found in violation of fire-safety rules, students may be fined $50 per violation. They could also lose their housing contract.

The safety report also lists that “hot tubs are not permitted.”

Beyond housing: fires found throughout university property

The Annual Fire Safety Report summarizes fires that happen in university housing, but does not detail fires that happened throughout the rest of campus. A review of the campus fire log found that there have been more than 100 fires on university property from February 2010 through July 2014.

There have been at least 79 fires on university property in Urbana and at least 26 fires on its property in Champaign.

To prevent fires on campus, the University and local fire departments have safety outreach programs to help train resident advisors, students and kitchen employees. One such program, Fire Factor, took place at the Illinois Fire Service Institute in September.

“Fire-safety awareness is provided to various groups on campus, and that includes teaching laboratory assistants, resident hall assistants, students and new employees,” said Jeremy Leevey, fire prevention officer for the Urbana Fire Department. “All the new kitchen and dining employees have to go through fire-safety awareness training.”

Fires related to trash, garbage and waste caused by far the most fires during that time, causing about two out of every five fires. Food-related fires – including fires described as being caused by stoves, “burnt bacon,” and popcorn – caused about one out of every five fires.

In July, a suspicious fire was started in a tunnel connecting the Undergraduate Library to the Main Library on campus. Another fire was started in a mailbox in the 600-block of East Green Street.

“I’m thankful to say that we’ve been very, very fortunate,” Grant said. “They’ve all basically things more related to improper disposal, things like smoking materials in trash cans or cooking.”

Malfunctioning electrical appliances and equipment caused at least 16 fires.

“We’re fortunate that it has not been any worse than that,” Grant said.

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