HOMER — Investigators aren't sure what caused a fire at a vacant home belonging to the Homer fire chief but believe it's suspicious.
Homer Fire Chief Don Happ said he recently purchased the home at 736 A on County Road 2500 E, about 2 miles southwest of Homer, and was renovating it so he could lease it.
About 6:10 p.m. Tuesday, a passerby saw flames coming from the kitchen in the back of the house and called for help.
"I was the first one there," said Happ. "I recognized the address. The only good thing is I knew it was vacant."
Happ said he also saw flames coming from the rear of his 1,400 square foot, single-story home, which had its utilities on.
Firefighters from his department, St. Joseph-Stanton Fire Protection District, Ogden, Broadlands, Longview, Philo, Sidney, and Villa Grove all helped. Water had to be trucked in.
"To get the fire out took about 45 minutes. It was a lot of overhaul in that old house," Happ said.
Firefighters were there about seven hours.
Happ said he bought the house about two months ago and since then had noticed activity inside that led him and Champaign County sheriff's investigator Jody Ferry to believe the cause of Tuesday's fire was suspicious, even though it remains officially undetermined. Ferry said the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office was also asked to investigate.
"I had been out there a couple times and the doors had been knocked in. I put on new locks," said Happ, who previously found cigarette butts and empty beer cans there that didn't belong to him. There had been no damage in the previous intrusions, he said.
Happ estimated the loss at $50,000, saying about 80 percent of the house was damaged by smoke and fire.
"We just put kitchen cabinets in it and were just getting a good start on it," he said. "I've been in the rental business 20 years and this will be our first claim."
Happ said the house was insured and he intends to rebuild.
Happ said a firefighter had to be taken to the hospital for heat exhaustion but was doing fine Wednesday morning.