RANTOUL — Rantoul fire investigators have determined that cigarettes probably caused a costly fire at a local business Thursday afternoon.
"We're pretty sure cigarettes probably started it," Fire Chief Ken Waters said Friday of a blaze that caused an estimated $50,000 damage to Dunkin' Donuts, 402 S. Century Blvd.
"We don't know where the cigarettes came from. Someone dropped a cigarette there and caught the mulch on fire, and it melted one plastic fitting on the gas lines on the manifold" — allowing natural gas to seep out and catch fire.
Waters said a pine tree and an arborvitae also caught fire next to the manifold.
The fire, which occurred on the west side of the business, became like a "blow torch," Waters said.
Businesses and homes up to a block away were evacuated as flames issued from the meter.
Firefighters cooled the side of the building with water while waiting for the natural gas service to be turned off. Waters said the firefighters let the fire burn rather than put it out, to eliminate natural gas from possibly pooling, which would have created a greater chance for explosion.
Waters said a crew from Nicor dug about 30 inches down to cut the gas line and cap it.
The fire damaged a cooler near the meter and part of the building, Waters said.
"The north end of the cooler, the insulation's gone," Waters said, "and inside the cooler there's about 4 inches of water."
He said firefighters cut a hole in the building to eliminate hot spots.
Waters' estimate of damage included lost product. In addition to a Dunkin' Donuts, the building houses a Baskin Robbins.
Store personnel were allowed to return to the store about 15 minutes after the fire was extinguished.
He said a customer who drove up to the drive-through window alerted employees to the fire.
"The people inside had no idea it was burning," the fire chief said.
Waters said firefighters were on the scene for about two hours. Thomasboro Fire Department assisted at the scene.
Waters said about 18 Rantoul firefighters responded to the call.
Waters said the building is owned by Sunil Modi.