CHAMPAIGN — Denise Forshier admits she's a bit on edge in the wake of the fifth property to be damaged by fire in her neighborhood in 10 months.
"I have lived here 20 years. I don't think there have been a total of five fires in 20 years," she said Wednesday, hours after fire damaged a garage at 1618 W. University Ave., catty-corner from her home in the same block.
Beth Frasca, who lives a couple houses north and east, said she woke about 4 a.m.
"I was very freaked out because the smell of the smoke woke me up and I thought my own house was on fire," said Frasca, who's lived in her Park Avenue house for five years. "I panicked but I could see the fire from our bedroom window. I could the flames shooting up."
Champaign fire officials are equally concerned and are working with police to find out if there's a link between Wednesday morning's fire and three others since January that have substantially damaged property. No one has been hurt.
"Everybody is working very hard to get to the bottom of what's going on," said Champaign Fire Marshal John Koller. "In all honesty, we have one fire that we did mark as suspicious on Victor. The others are undetermined but that doesn't mean we aren't still looking into them."
The other fires happened:
— Tuesday, Jan. 22, about 4:15 a.m. at 205 N. Victor St.. A fire that started in a shared garage between that property and one at 1701 W. Church St., jumped to the back of the vacant Victor Street house, heavily damaging it. The garage was destroyed.
Fire officials called the cause "incendiary," meaning there is some human reason for it. The owner is Don Dunlap Jr. of Mahomet.
— Thursday, Aug. 1, 108 S. Mattis Ave., about 5 a.m.: "That one we have listed as undetermined," said Koller. It started on the inside of a back room used as a workshop that was formerly a garage. That house was also vacant and owned by Dunlap, whose father used to own the nearby gas station and used the property for storage, Koller said.
— Sunday, Sept. 8, about 3:30 a.m., 1521 W. Church St.: The fire started around the deck area at the rear of 1521, burned its garage, then jumped next door to 1519 W. Church St., heavily damaging the rear of that house as well.
The cause of that fire, or fires depending on how you count, is also listed as undetermined.
"We're unsure of exactly where that started," Koller said. "The deck and garage were four feet apart and there were trash cans in between. There were grills but we're unsure of the actual cause of that fire."
Both Forshier and Frasca said they could believe that one or two fires in a compact area could be accidents, but four in less than a year is a bit too coincidental.
"It is worrisome because if they are related, everyone needs to be more vigilant," said Forshier, who concedes she doesn't know many of her neighbors well because of the transient nature of the people living there.
Frasca agreed that other than trading remarks on Facebook with a couple other neighbors, she hasn't discussed the fires at length with any neighbors.
Both have also been victims of other crimes. Frasca said recently someone entered their unlocked car in a driveway and stole a phone charger. Forshier said her house was broken into about three years ago and the intruder made off with a significant amount of jewelry.
In Wednesday morning's fire — all the fires have happened between 3 and 5 a.m. — Koller said the house was vacant but about to be occupied, having just been renovated.
"The fire was behind the garage in a lean-to attached to the garage where the previous owners stored lawn equipment, stuff like that," he said, adding he wasn't prepared to say how it started because causes have to be ruled out.
Koller said the house is owned by Elizabeth O'Donnell of Champaign and had been vacant while it was being spruced up. Koller said the renter had already moved many of his belongings into the garage in anticipation of moving into the house.
The back wall of the garage and the would-be renter's belongings inside were damaged by the flames. He estimated the loss at $10,000.
The property was insured, he said.
Koller said he's working with Champaign police detective Joe Johnston on all the fires.
"Any time we have that many fires in one concentrated area, it does give us concern. That's why it's a process. It's very detailed and purposeful. That's really how we are going at this," he said, adding that causes have to be systematically eliminated and that takes time.
"We are on top of it and are working very hard and we just want to make sure we don't have something going on that's criminal. We want to make sure everyone is safe," Koller said.
Anyone with information on any of the fires is encouraged to call Champaign police at 351-4545 or Crimestoppers of Champaign County at 373-8477.
Information may also be sent anonymously online at http://www.373tips.com or by cellphone text message by sending CCTIP plus the information to CRIMES (274637). Crimestoppers will pay a reward if the information leads to an arrest.