Down but dangerous: Illinois sees drop in structure fires, but not in the harm they can do
Firefighters in Illinois handled nearly 37% fewer structure fires in 2021 than just 10 years before, but suburban fire chiefs say the dangers posed by these blazes are more significant than ever.
According to the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office, there were 5,831 residence or workplace fires last year compared to 9,235 similarly categorized fires in 2012. These types of fires have been on the decline throughout the past decade, but they really dropped off in 2020 and 2021, records show.
"That's 100% related to the pandemic," said Naperville Fire Chief Dan Smith. "People are in their homes all day, so they're able to detect whatever issues are going on."
Smith's department averaged about 42 such structure fires each year from 2012 to 2021, the fire marshal's records show. However, in 2021 the agency handled 31 structure fires, the fewest for one year during that time span.
But while these types of structure fires have declined, fire officials say the dangers to occupants and firefighters have increased.
"Furniture and the building materials for modern homes are now all synthetic, which burns faster and hotter," said Libertyville Fire Chief Richard Carani. "It's definitely changed the strategy for attacking a fire inside a building. In the old days, the firefighting was done inside."
Researchers at the product safety science organization UL have determined the use of synthetic materials, largely petroleum-based, has cut fire escape times down from about 17 minutes 40 years ago to less than five minutes today.
Illinois averaged 137 fire-related deaths a year from 2013 to 2019, according to federal data from the U.S. Fire Administration. However, the number of fire-related deaths during the last three years of that data set were above the average, peaking at 150 in 2018.
A video produced by the group's Fire Safety Research Institute shows how much more quickly a fire in a room with synthetic furnishings reaches flashover -- the point when a space becomes engulfed in flames -- than one with natural materials.
"While there has been a steady decline of the residential home fires, there has been a significant incline in deaths associated with those home fires," said Dwayne Sloan, UL's director of principal engineers. "UL can't control what is sold, but it can help with the standards."
One initiative UL helped establish recently was a regulation, beginning next month, that calls for upholstered furnishings to carry flammability labeling.
Firefighters' cancer risk
Another concern with the growing prevalence of synthetic materials is its toxicity when it combusts, fire officials agreed.
"There's a lot of cancer initiatives in the fire service these days, because all those byproducts in the furniture and building materials are very cancerous when they ignite," said Bartlett Fire Chief William Gabrenya. "We're starting to see firefighters with cancer rates 200 times the national average, so you have a lot of places that now require decontamination of gear after going into a fire."
Hanover Township Emergency Services provides decontamination assistance to 13 departments in the suburbs. Executive Director Mike Crews, a former downstate fire chief, said the process is more time-consuming than costly.
"It took under a year for the program to grow, and boy did it," Crews said.
Firefighters stand on a tarp in their gear, then get scrubbed down using dish soap and brushes. They're eventually hosed off and patted dry with towels.
"We don't want them getting back into their trucks or back to the station with that stuff on them, because then it gets all over the place and puts more people at risk," Crews said.
Gabrenya said some departments are having to outfit firefighters with multiple sets of firefighting gear, because one set will need to be decontaminated while the firefighter remains on duty.
"There are lots of things changing in the fire service because it's more dangerous than it's ever been," he said.
Many chiefs believe continued fire safety awareness has helped lower the risk of fires and fatalities.
"A lot of the decline in building fires has to do with education, code updates and product safety improvements," Carani said. "You can throw in smoke detectors and fire protection systems, too."
Jim Rhodes, a battalion chief with the Aurora Fire Department, said he is hopeful the numbers will continue to drop, but he doesn't believe that will be the case.
"In 22 years, there's been no pattern," he said. "We've had 15 structure fires so far this year, which has already been a very, very busy year for us with other calls, but then again it could completely slow down."
Aurora has averaged about 67 residential and workplace structure fires during the 10 years from 2012 to 2021, according to the fire marshal's report, with 60 in 2021 compared to 100 in 2012. However, the fewest structure fires occurred there in 2018, when just 37 were recorded.
Fire chiefs said the decline in fires isn't likely to translate in a decline in personnel or other costs.
"We can have a slow year of fires and still be busier than ever, because structure fires are just a small portion of what we're doing," Smith said.
Medical calls for an ambulance are often a fire department's most frequent response, but there also are hazardous material cleanups, technical rescue assistance and other special details that fire departments provide, chiefs said.
"Fires are minuscule compared to the scope of what we're doing these days," Smith said.