Causes of many fires in Champaign and Urbana go undetermined; Campustown is a hot spot

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Photo depicting the aftermath of a fire at 206 S. First St. Photo by Claire Podlesak.

A cigarette butt flicked out of an open window. 

A late-night pizza sitting in the oven for too long. 

A hair curler left on during a night out.      

These scenarios are just a few examples of how fires started in Champaign and Urbana in the past six years. 

The highest risk area for fires in the communities is Campustown, according to Red Cross data which measures fire risks.

From 2018 through 2023, there were 425 responses to 370 building fires reported in the two cities. The locations and causes were identified through documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by CU-CitizenAccess to the Champaign and Urbana fire departments. 

In total, the Champaign department responded to 271 building fires and the Urbana department responded to 154 in the six-year period. 55 of these responses were cases of mutual aid, where fire departments assist one another during active fires, so the total number of fires is less than the number of responses. 

Many of the causes of the building fires were undetermined or still under investigation.

Fire responses could range from something as small as a faulty smoke detector to as big as a multi-story fire. In 2023, fire departments across Illinois responded to 1,543,427 fires, according to data from the Illinois State Fire Marshal website. 

Fire risk assessment shows Campustown is high-risk 

The Fire Risk Assessment map for the Champaign County area. The map is divided by Census tract and colored to indicate the severity of its fire risk on a scale, with darker colors indicating high fire risk and light colors indicating low fire risk. Screenshot from the Red Cross website.

On the Red Cross website for fire risk assessment, which breaks down fire risk by Census tract, Champaign County has an overall score of 49 out of 100. But parts of the county have high fire risk scores, often in the 75 to 90 range.

Several parts of Campustown scored the highest for building fire risk with a score of 93. Deputy Fire Marshal Jeremy Mitchell of the Champaign Fire Department said this is an overlooked area within the city.

“This is an area we tend not to think about when we discuss safety and quality of life in the city,” Mitchell said, “But there are several factors driving fire risk in the University area, among them the addition of 14 residential high-rise buildings, and lower average personal income, students, after all.”

Following a fire, the department investigates the cause of ignition or what the heat source is. Data from Champaign and Urbana fire departments show the causes of many building fires in the area end up undetermined.

One of the main issues showing up in the Campustown area is a lack of education on proper cooking safety and the frequency of smoke alarm activations, Mitchell said.

Heat sources for Urbana Fire Department’s 154 building fire responses from 2018 through 2023. Data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Causes of ignition for Champaign Fire Department’s 271 building fire responses from 2018 through 2023. Data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Overall, including mutual aid to other departments, the Urbana Fire Department labeled 33.77% of fires from 2018 to 2023 as under investigation or undetermined. Champaign classified 10.5% of fires as undetermined and 44.2% as under investigation. 

According to Mitchell, this has much to do with the percentage of fires that are unable to be solved. 

“When a fire is reported as ‘undetermined,’ it’s usually because there are several possible causes of ignition which cannot be ruled out or disproven,” Mitchell said in an email. “Destruction of the building or contents makes investigation impossible.”

The frequency of fires labeled as “undetermined” also has to do with an update to the National Fire Protection Association Guide 921, Mitchell said.

Whereas terms like incendiary, accidental, and natural were used in the past, fire stations today are encouraged to retire those classifications and only label fires once proper evidence has been procured. 

Cooking fires in Champaign increased during COVID-19 pandemic

Structure fires (red) and cooking fires (yellow) in Champaign in 2022. Source: Champaign Community Risk Assessment, Champaign Fire Department

According to the Champaign Community Risk Assessment, created by Mitchell, the data from 2019 shows a concentration of cooking and structure fires that starts within Campustown and moves west.

“The area bounded by Kirby Avenue, Mattis Avenue, Springfield Avenue and Duncan Road presents an opportunity for home fire safety interventions in order to mitigate a growing structure fire problem,” Mitchell said.

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a decrease in structure fires, but an increase in cooking fires as restaurants were closed and people turned to their own stoves.

“University of Illinois students living in private housing account for the density of cooking fires east of First Street,” Mitchell said in an email, “This is an opportunity to address cooking and general fire safety among students living in private housing, especially high rise multifamily residential buildings.”

Data from 2021 shows a simple increase in the number of incidents, with the location of them staying relatively the same. However, the frequency shifted towards the south and west of the city the following year. 

Public education key element to local fire safety outreach

Randy Smith, the building safety supervisor for Champaign Fire Department, said the city takes opportunities after fires to promote fire safety in the area.     

“It helps to see where we may need to do some of our targeted education campaigns,” Smith said, “We had a couple recent incidents of fire where we went into the neighborhood afterwards and threw some smoke alarms in.”

According to the Champaign Fire Department mission statement, there is an obligation to the public to “to protect life, property, and the environment through professional services delivered with compassion and integrity.”

This involves not only the direct act of putting out fires, but all the work done before to prevent them from ever happening. 

Champaign has focused on the ideas of both community outreach and public education in the past few years in an effort to bring down the number of building and cooking fires.

The Champaign Community Risk Assessment said community outreach involves firefighters and officials attending parades or other community events to provide the general public with demonstrations. The informal setting of these events allows for the department to instill fire safety practices into the minds of young people.

The department conducts public education to speak to citizens in a formal setting to provide the community with the knowledge they need to handle a fire in their own homes. 

The Urbana Fire Department states on its website that it provides services such as fire prevention, inspections, education and safety to the University of Illinois. It also focuses on public education by visiting schools and career programs to teach proper protocol and what safety measures to take in an active fire situation.

The department did not return requests for comment.

Emergency calls higher in 2022 at all six Champaign fire stations

There are six fire stations located throughout Champaign and four in Urbana.

Emergency calls by station have increased overall each year from 2019 to 2022 at each of Champaign’s six stations. 

Station One in Champaign and Station Four in Urbana both serve the University District. Out of all the stations for each city, these are the busiest for total responses. 

Emergency calls by stations for Champaign Fire Department’s six stations from 2019 to 2022. Source: Champaign Fire Department

Mitchell said Station Four in Champaign, located in the center of the city, is the busiest for structure fires. Station three, located at 702 W. Bradley Avenue, is the second busiest. 

For Station One, there was a 70% increase in emergency calls. Calls to Station Two increased 28%, both Station Three and Four increased 23% and Station Five and Six increased just over 40%.

“The increase in call volume and fire duty observed by the Champaign Fire Department in the last four years reflects a City in transition,” Mitchell wrote in the Community Risk Assessment. “Growing pains have changed the nature of fire and other hazards in Champaign, as well as levels of risk.”

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