"When you look at an arson fire, you first eliminate all the other causes that could start a fire accidentally."
At least five suspicious blazes have occurred in area since Aug. 1
CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign police detective says that it is possible that one person or a group of people may have been responsible for several of the recent arsons reported in Champaign.
"We certainly have had an influx of arsons over the last few months," said Champaign police Detective Joe Johnston. "If there is one person that is doing these, it isn't uncommon for the person to go on a spree."
At least five Champaign fires since Aug. 1 have been listed as arson, incendiary or of undetermined origins:
— 5:53 p.m. Oct. 19, single-story house, 208 William St., fire in the living room. The cause was listed as arson.
— 2:56 a.m. Oct. 17, apartment building, 108 E. John St., fire in a one-story addition. The cause was listed as incendiary.
— 4 a.m. Oct. 2, vacant house, 1618 W. University Ave., fire in a small detached garage. The cause was listed as undetermined.
— 3:30 a.m. Sept. 8, two homes and a garage, 1521 and 1519 W. Church St., fire started in deck area. The cause was listed as undetermined.
— 5 a.m. Aug. 1, vacant house, 108 S. Mattis Ave., fire in a back room that was formerly a garage. The cause was listed as undetermined.
The cause of another fire, on Jan. 22 at 205 N. Victor St., was also listed as incendiary.
"The majority of them have been vacant or unoccupied buildings, and a lot of them have taken place in the early morning hours," Johnston told The News-Gazette. "Many of them have started in or near the garage."
In Urbana, where suspected arsons have dropped from 14 a year ago to eight so far this year, interim Fire Chief Brian Nightlinger said some of the arsons in his community turned out to be mischief.
"We learned that some fires last year were set by a minor doing it as a prank," Nightlinger said. "I'm not going to identify her because she is a minor, but a young girl who had a pretty rough life turned out to be a suspect in three different fires. She didn't use a whole lot of good judgment."
Johnston said police are not discussing any incendiary materials that may have been found at the scene of the fires while the investigation of the fires continue.
Johnston said police investigators can sometimes learn whether a fire was intentionally set by finding items or materials at the scene of the fire that the homeowner or resident did not remember being there before the fire.
"We can generally go into a room following a fire and have a good idea of what is in the room," he said. "If there is something that doesn't belong, like a gas can or a backpack or something like that, we will ask the homeowner about it. If the homeowner doesn't know about the item, then it becomes a piece of evidence for us."
Nightlinger said fire investigators can often spot signs of arson by eliminating non-manmade causes for a blaze.
"When you look at an arson fire, you first eliminate all the other causes that could start a fire accidentally," he said. "Most of the time, if a person is setting an arson fire, he or she needs some kind of accelerant. An accelerant is a fuel, like gasoline or lighter fluid.
"If we go to the scene of a fire and find the presence of fuel in a room where there's no logical reason for fuel to be there, that's a good sign it was an arson. There's a reason for gasoline to be in a garage, for example, but not in a living room."
"Even if a room is burned up, we can reconstruct what was there when the fire began. When we talk to the resident, he or she can tell us what was inside a particular room and whether something we discovered there was present when they were last in that room."
Danville Director of Public Safety Larry Thomason said his city has seen 10 fires of suspicious origin since March.
Other than an incident at the Danville Public Library on Aug. 12, when somebody dropped a plastic bottle containing a fluid that smelled like kerosene, Thomason said the other recent incidents all took place at residences.
"All of the other locations were unoccupied homes, and most of them were vacant altogether with no connected utilities," Thomason said. "Most of these incidents took place in the early morning hours, between midnight and 7 a.m.
Thomason said the city also had multiple fires a year ago, in which a fire started in a Dumpster after a person walked by and put smoking materials in it.
In Rantoul, Fire Chief Ken Waters said people have different reasons for starting a fire.
"We had three arsons in the last two years, and none of them were related," Waters said. "We had a mobile home that was set on fire because people who had lived there were angry they got ejected from the home.
"We had a house that was set on fire while the resident was in jail.
"Then we had a building where there was a shooting the night before, and somebody threw a Molotov cocktail into a bedroom." A Molotov cocktail is a breakable glass bottle holding a flammable substance and a wick that is set on fire, Waters said.
Johnston said neighbors can help police by reporting unusual activity they may see in an unoccupied nearby home, especially activity they may notice in the early morning hours.
Nightlinger said neighbors can help investigators by getting a good description of a person they may see setting a fire and to give that information to a firefighter or policeman.
Arsons and suspected arsons
* Through Oct. 24.
Sources: Champaign Police Department, Danville Public Safety, Rantoul Fire Department, Urbana Police Department
Home safety tips
- Keep bushes around the home trimmed back.
- Install motion sensor lights outside the home.
- If the home is going to be unoccupied for a while, ask a neighbor to keep an eye on it.