Human reason for start of Champaign fire; information given to police for further investigation

CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign fire investigator has determined there was a human element to the start of a fire that destroyed a west Champaign garage and heavily damaged the adjacent home early Tuesday.

John Koller said he's now turning over the information he gleaned from the remains of a garage at 1701 W. Church St., and damage to house at 205 N. Victor St. to Champaign police to investigate.

Koller called the fire "incendiary," meaning there was some human reason for a cause as opposed to an electrical fire or a lightning strike, for example.

The house is owned by Don Dunlap Jr. of Mahomet, who did not return calls to The News-Gazette. Koller said he spoke to him Tuesday.

"It started inside the garage," said Koller, explaining there are a number of factors investigators eliminate before honing in on a cause or origin of a fire.

"We go through a series of steps, looking at burn patterns, physically digging through what's left, looking at the scene, the depth of char on wood," he said.

The garage was shared between the rental house at 1701 W. Church and the Dunlap house at 205 N. Victor, which has been unoccupied for several years. Koller said there was electricity on in the north side of the garage used by the Church Street renters but not on the Dunlap side.

Using a dog from the Illinois State Fire Marshal's office that is trained to sniff out accelerants, Koller said the investigators could not detect any accelerant.

"It doesn't mean it wasn't there. It's just that the dog didn't find anything," Koller said.

The fire jumped from the garage to the house, which was only about a foot to the south. There were no vehicles in either side of the garage but plenty of "every day, run-of-the-mill garage items" stored inside the bays.

Koller said a motorist driving by on Church Street saw smoke, drove that way and spotted the garage on fire. That was at 4:14 a.m. Firefighters arrived within minutes and had the fires out in both structures by 6:30 a.m.

Koller said the properties are insured.

He estimated damage to the buildings at $80,000 and to the contents at $6,000.

Koller said even though the house had been unoccupied for about seven years, it was still furnished.

It had been the subject of a complaint filed with the city last fall about its rundown condition. Dunlap had until Dec. 27 to fix the problems cited but had not met that deadline.

Among the violations were that the door to the garage was open to intrusion. Koller said it's possible someone smoking inside the garage may have been responsible, or a homeless person could have gotten in and started a fire to keep warm. Those are possibilities for the police to investigate, he said.

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