As Susan Zerin looks out from the backyard of her Buffalo Grove home Monday morning, she sees acres of bare, blackened earth, singed trees and a half dozen crews cleaning up burned bushes and charred utility poles. The smell, a mix of charred earth, wood and metal, hangs over the area.
It's a depressing landscape compared to the gently waving 15-foot reeds that used to surround the lake behind her home, but as she nudges her eager Weimaraner, Spencer, away from the ashes littering her backyard, she admits it could be much worse -- at least her house is still standing. If the winds had pushed the flames another 15 or 20 feet, that might not be the case.
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While crews clean up from Sunday's brush fire that took 25 different agencies several hours to extinguish -- and the court determines what happens to the man accused of accidentally starting the fire with illegal fireworks -- neighbors say they're deeply grateful for the fire and police departments that kept it from being a much worse day.
"It's OK, no one got hurt, no property got damaged," Zerin said. "It's bad for the community, but it could have been so much worse."
Tom Croke was just starting to do lawn work in his backyard Sunday afternoon when he saw plumes of smoke that looked as if they were rising over his neighbors' homes in the area near Buffalo Grove and Aptakisic roads.
He ran toward the smoke and realized it wasn't coming from any of the homes on his street but was in fact a brush fire inching closer in the grassy area behind those houses.
"My house was off to the side, so I knew I was OK, but I was definitely nervous for the people across the street," he said.
Croke went door-to-door, telling his neighbors to get out of their houses. He watched their confused faces turn fearful when he pointed to the rising flames behind them.
"I'm sure they would have done the same thing for me," he said, dismissing the idea his actions were heroic.
"Then I got out of the way and let the pros do their job," Croke said of the fire departments that started showing up almost immediately. "It's a good thing the fire department came when they did because who knows what could have happened."
Buffalo Grove Fire Chief Terry Vavra said shortly after getting the call at 1 p.m., the department elevated the fire to a second alarm box.
For more than three hours, 35 trucks from around the suburbs battled flames that reached 30 feet high. Suburban firefighters don't typically deal with brush fires, he said, but they knew to quickly create a perimeter around the houses on all sides of the fire.
Vavra said the work done by all of the responders was "phenomenal," especially considering the high winds and dry conditions that acted as fuel for the fire that he said burned about 20 acres of land.
"Fireworks obviously make this worse, and along with the extreme drought conditions we're having, that means that the resources the county has are already pretty spread out when a fire like this happens," Vavra said.
An off-duty Morton Grove police officer in the area spotted four people running from the scene of the fire and stopped them before Buffalo Grove police arrived.
One of them, Gabriel R. Horwich, 20, of Buffalo Grove, has been charged with criminal damage to property by reckless means of fire, a felony carrying a sentence of up to three years in prison. Horwich was released from Lake County jail Monday after posting $10,000 bail.
The other three people were questioned but not charged because they weren't actively lighting off fireworks, Buffalo Grove Deputy Police Chief Steve Husak said.
Police are treating the fire as accidental, Husak said.
Fireworks and dry conditions were also at the root of a brush fire July 4 in Long Grove 4 that took 30 departments more than seven hours to extinguish, though no structures were damaged in that fire, either.
Tyler Cook, 18, of Lincolnshire was charged with criminal damage to property and reckless damage to property, accused of lighting fireworks that caused that 18-acre wildfire.
Although 24 homes were evacuated in Buffalo Grove as a precaution, some neighbors, including Zerin, weren't home at the time of the fire.
Zerin and her partner, Howard Weiner, were shopping in Vernon Hills for new bike helmets, hoping to take advantage of the path the runs behind their backyard, the same path that now gives a front-row view to the fire's destruction.
Getting a neighbor's frantic call, Zerin dropped the helmet on the ground and the couple rushed home. "Everyone was probably looking at us," she said.
Driving south on Milwaukee Avenue, the couple were unnerved by the black clouds of smoke rolling over their neighborhood. Although the couple's children are older and out of the house they've shared for 12 years, Zerin said they were concerned about Spencer, a feisty dog who tends to hide in their closet when he's scared.
"I never thought about what else I'd want to take with me. I never wanted to think about it. As long as everyone is living and breathing, that's enough," she said.
As they turned onto their street, it was already blocked by emergency vehicles. A kind police officer let Howard quickly run into the house and get Spencer, who Zerin said was agitated but fine.
The rest of the afternoon, neighbors and onlookers stood outside, watching their houses get hosed down as a precaution, listening to the loud booms of transformers exploding and hoping the flames wouldn't spread to their homes. While they gathered nervously, Zerin said a police officer was keeping the group updated every 15 minutes or so.
Several neighbors said they were impressed with the coordination and organization of so many fire departments working together.
Zerin said she's thankful to ComEd, the electric company that she said probably doesn't get a lot of thank-yous, because their power was restored Sunday night and crews were replacing blackened utility poles early Monday morning.
Zerin said even her neighborhood's small experience with a fire made her think of the people in Colorado who have been fighting wildfires for weeks.
"It gives you a sense of how horrifying that must be. This was so minor compared to that, but the fear and the anxiety is still there," she said.