Woman found dead in home; snow hampers crews on way to the scene
FOOSLAND — Eric Stalter said it was very frustrating for him and his fellow firefighters to watch as fire consumed a home and took the life of a woman inside Monday night.
The death of Shirley Stewart, 77, was the sixth caused by fire in Champaign County in the last five months.
Several volunteer firefighters had risked "treacherous" conditions to get to Mrs. Stewart's burning home at 3450 B County Road 450 E, said the Sangamon Valley Fire Protection District chief.
"We were on the scene at 10:05 p.m. but not able to access the property until 10:27 p.m. due to the snow," he said.
"We had really good help from the Illinois Department of Transportation and Brown Township and even a neighbor who came down with a snowplow and another who was able to come with a backhoe."
In spite of the efforts of the four men to clear drifted snow from the lane to the small subdivision, Stalter said the house was destroyed.
"It's a little subdivision tucked back in the woods. It's hard to access, a very narrow drive. It had not been plowed yet," he said.
The call initially came in from METCAD as a "glow" spotted by someone to the north. It took about 10 minutes after firefighters were dispatched for them to locate and confirm that the glow was a working house fire, Stalter said.
"We had to wait out on Illinois 47. We were on the scene and at the driveway by 10 p.m.," he said.
And when they were able to reach the house thanks to the plowers, "it was purely defensive. We sent no one in. When we arrived, the house was down on the ground."
Stalter said the approximately two dozen firefighters who turned out held out hope that there was no one inside, but Stalter suspected otherwise.
"There was a car in the driveway and no tracks in the snow," he said.
Then, Mrs. Stewart's daughter, who lives nearby, arrived and told firefighters her mother was more than likely in the house.
Mrs. Stewart was eventually found in a kitchen-bath area, Stalter said. He said in addition to her furnace, Mrs. Stewart used a wood-burning stove, and fire officials believe the fire's start was somehow related to the stove although the destruction of the single-story home was so thorough that they may never be certain.
It's also hard to know how long the fire may have been burning before it was reported, Stalter said.
"Where this house was, there was nothing downwind of it. Due to the woods and the secluded nature (of the house), the chance of people looking out their window at that hour is minimal," he said, noting the houses in that area are fairly spread out.
The dangerously cold temperatures also took their toll on equipment.
"We had difficulty with the water supply. Our tankers froze up. We had valves break," Stalter said.
Gibson City and Cornbelt firefighters helped at the scene. Rantoul firefighters stood by at Sangamon Valley's fire station while they were away until 3:30 a.m.
The remains of the fire continued to smolder as long as eight hours later but were contained to the crawlspace with no apparent risk to any other property.
Stalter said Gibson City Ambulance was also present trying to lessen the impact of the frigid temperatures on the firefighters. He said they took pains to rotate firefighters in and out of the cold as frequently as possible.
"It was great work, and we appreciated the mutual aid," Stalter said.
An autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday for Mrs. Stewart.
In addition to Mrs. Stewart's death, fires have claimed the lives of two people in Rantoul, two in Urbana and one in Champaign since September.
On Sunday afternoon, high winds whipping falling snow also hampered the efforts of firefighters trying to get to a two-story farmhouse on fire about four miles north of Tuscola on the Hayes Road in northern Douglas County. The firefighters made it to the home and fought the fire but were unable to save it, displacing a family of five.