Basic story turns into major lesson on fire safety

Posted12/5/2015 2:00 PM

It started as a spot news story and turned into much, much more.

Staff writer Lauren Rohr, while working the Sunday night "breaking news" shift, reported on the basics of a house fire in Carpentersville: Started about 7:45 a.m.; extinguished in 15 minutes; residents home but escaped safely; about $100,000 in damage, including destruction of kitchen and the roof above; considerable smoke damage; fire not suspicious.


Lauren also covers several communities in the northern Fox Valley, including Carpentersville. After her story ran, the fire chief told her several residents were helping the displaced Catalan family, who had to moved into a rental house.

That seemed like a nice "feel good" story she should pursue, but Lauren also knew we often did such stories, and she was eager to find "to find a way to set this story apart."

It struck her that she had reported on a significant number of summer house fires. Lauren -- like most of us, I'll bet -- presumed wintertime, with closed-up houses heated by various means and occupied with Christmas trees, lights and fireplaces ablaze, is the time most fires occur.

She told me about this possible trend of excessive summer house fires, and I encouraged her to pursue it.

That premise, though, was soon doused. Turns out the stats on seasonal fire frequency are underwhelming. There are a few, but not a dramatic number more in the winter. And the overall number of fires has been on a slow decline for decades, likely thanks to better awareness, better use of smoke detectors.

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It took a while to track down those numbers, but in the meantime, Lauren recalled another house fire she had covered in Bartlett, where the fire chief mentioned its "behavior." It burned fast and strong, typical of the modern-day house fire, he said. When Lauren finally contacted a source from the state fire marshal's office, she got her statistical data, but he "talked nonstop" about how materials used to build and furnish homes today are particularly prone to burning quick and hot.

Lauren verified this with Underwriters Laboratories, whose consumer safety director was a treasure trove of info on building materials, and how the "open concept" floor plans everyone loves these days make it virtually impossible to contain a fire. He even provided a video for Lauren's report showing the dramatic difference in the speed at which a typical modern-day room is engulfed in flames versus a "legacy room" from the midcentury with traditional wood construction and natural materials. All these things are game-changers for firefighters and people caught in a burning house.

At this point, the only thing lacking to a great story was some humanity. Lauren called Minerva Catalan, who had mentioned the fire to the family's house had spread quite fast. In fact, she said, her brother left his bedroom for less than a minute only to return to see his mattress engulfed in flames.

The Catalan family's experience became the dramatic introduction to a helpful and informative story about modern-day fire safety that appeared on last Sunday's front page. A cautionary tale for us all.

• Jim Davis,, is news director for the DuPage and Fox Valley editions. Follow him on Facebook at and on twitter at @dhjimdavis.

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