AUBURN GRESHAM — Belle McClandon was getting ready to go to bed around 9:30 p.m. Sunday night when she heard fireworks going off near the back porch of her Auburn Gresham home.
Moments later, the drapes in the rear of her home at 8737 S. Bishop St. were on fire.
“I had taken my bath and was in my robe,” McClandon said. “My husband was getting ready to take a shower and all of a sudden heard some firecracker popping noises at the back of the house. He said, ‘What is that?’ I went to see what it was and heard the popping and then saw the inside drapes had started burning. That means the outside was burning for a little bit. We had to run out with just what we had on.”
McClandon, her husband, Charles, and Belle’s son Michael Kirksey, who was in his basement bedroom, got out safely.
Unfortunately their home, where they have lived for 50 years, was destroyed. The home is among at least two Chicago homes suspected of catching fire because of illegal fireworks over the holiday weekend.
The other home, in North Center at 2459 W. Berteau Ave., caught fire after what is believed to be fireworks ignited the roof on the early morning of July 5. A third home that sits next door to the North Center blaze was badly damaged by water.
Although illegal in Illinois, the sale of fireworks in Indiana and Wisconsin skyrocketed this year, with one store selling three times as much as in previous years. And fireworks-related calls to 911 in Chicago more than quadrupled — with 19,925 between Jan. 1 through July 5 as compared to 4,612 during the same period last year, according to Mary May, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Additionally, Chicago Fire officials said there was an uptick in garage fires over the holiday weekend and that fireworks may be to blame for some of those.
‘There Are So Many Memories’
In the fire that completely destroyed the McClandon home, officials believe fireworks ignited the rear porch, according to the family and an insurance company worker on the scene.
Had it happened just 30 minutes later, the family may not have escaped unharmed, according to Kirksey, who said he knew by his mother’s tone that something was wrong.
“My mother yelled for me. She said, ‘Mike, come up here! I had to throw on some shorts because I was ready for bed. By the time I got upstairs I saw the fire. It was coming from the back,” Kirksey said. “She said, ‘Come on, let’s get up out outta this house.’”
Once outside, Kirksey took a risk and went back in.
“Once we got out, momma noticed she didn’t have her purse. I said, ‘OK, I’ll go in there.’ I went in and it was getting real dark with the smoke and the flames from the back coming towards the front.”
On Monday, the family sat on their neighbor’s porch while a worker from their home insurance company looked over the damage and insurance company subcontractors pumped water used to put out the fire out of the basement.
“Had it been a little bit later we would have been asleep,” McClandon said.
The family said firefighters battled the blaze for several hours but by the time it was over, everything in the house was ruined. They started a GoFundMe fund to assist them and hope to rebuild in the same spot. In the meantime, they’ll be staying in a hotel.
“If rebuilding is possible, yes, we would love to because there are so many memories. When we were little kids we played on this block, running around and having a good time,” Kirksey said.
Fremon Kirksey Jr., Michael Kirksey’s brother, no longer lives in the home, but was devastated to lose keepsakes stored in the family attic.
“I had a lot of stuff up in the attic. Pictures from high school, prom, all that stuff,” he said.
Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the fire was elevated to a 2-11 blaze because of manpower issues. One firefighter was taken to a local hospital because of heat exhaustion. He said the cause was under investigation.
Another Chicago Fire Department spokesman said it’s difficult to determine with absolute certainty whether fireworks sparked a blaze.
“They can’t rule out fireworks,” CFD spokesman Larry Merrick said. “[But] they can’t say that for sure this fire started.”
Based on the fireworks heard on the back porch and the opinion of the insurance company worker on the scene, the McClandons believe the cause was fireworks.
The family actually lost their garage 15 years ago due to fireworks, Fremon Kirksey Jr. said.
“Fifteen years ago we lost our garage because of someone shooting fireworks,” he said. “We got home and went inside and ten minutes later someone knocked on our door saying the garage was on fire.”
On Monday, the brothers said they were relieved no one got hurt, but were angry that illegal fireworks likely destroyed their home.
“The people lighting the fireworks have no sense of responsibility,” Michael Kirksey said. “Some let these kids pop them and kids don’t know but these grown folks who let the kids do them shouldn’t be letting them pop them. The least they could do is shoot them off in a parking lot or somewhere where no houses are around. They go up and some of them malfunction and come down still lit.”
Fremon Kirksey said he wished the police would do more to combat fireworks but said he’s aware that they may not have the resources. He added that the amount of fireworks set off this year was “ridiculous.”
“Even when the firefighters were here fighting the fire people were shooting fireworks,” Fremon Kirksey said.
Chicago Police said they received calls about fireworks in the area but when officers arrived no one could be found. Over the weekend, police made no fireworks arrests, according to police spokesman Michelle Tannehill.
Looking over the damage on Monday, Fremon Kirksey said he was counting his blessings that his family wasn’t injured or killed.
“It could have been a lot worse.”
‘Almost All Of My Possessions Are Ruined’
The owner of the home at 2459 W. Berteau Ave. in North Center said he was staying with a friend in Winnetka when he got a phone call around midnight July 5, telling him the roof of the home he’s owned since 2000 was on fire. The owner, who asked that his name not be published, said he believed the fire was ignited by fireworks that landed on his roof.
“There was a fire investigator who said it might have been fireworks and that the fire started outside the house and there were a lot of fireworks being shot off in the neighborhood,” the owner said.
On Monday, Langford said the fire was still under investigation.
The owner was back at his heavily damaged home Monday trying to see if there was anything that could be salvaged. Unfortunately, what wasn’t damaged by fire or smoke appeared to be damaged by water from firefighting efforts.
“I’d say almost all of my possessions are ruined,” he said.
He said he felt lucky he wasn’t home when the fire started, but said it might have been avoided if he had a newer roof. He also said he doesn’t fault the police for not enforcing the laws regarding fireworks.
“If it had a newer roof it probably wouldn’t have caught on fire, but I don’t think, especially with the current situation where there are no public firework displays, I don’t think any amount of enforcement would do anything unless they were banned everywhere.”
The home next door at 2455 W. Berteau Ave. also suffered water damage from firefighting efforts. The owner, Laura Anderson, who lives with her sister on the top floor, said she had just put her head on her pillow when a neighbor frantically rang her doorbell and told her to get out of the home.
“I laid down around 12:30 a.m. with my dog to wait for the fireworks to die down because he was so scared,” Anderson said. “I just laid my head on the pillow when my doorbell started going crazy.”
Although her place did not catch on fire, it was heavily damaged by water from the firefighting efforts next door. On Monday, as she was going through her possessions that were damaged, she said she was angry with whoever lit the illegal fireworks — and wished her neighbor took better care of his property.
“The firefighters did the best they could have under the circumstances, I’m sure it was fireworks. But he had most of his roof gone before this and the wood slats were exposed, so it probably only took a spark to set it off,” Anderson said.
A search of the Chicago Building Department records indicates that the home at 2459 W. Berteau has failed three inspections since 2006 and been cited 15 times, including for failure to maintain a roof in sound condition.
On Monday, movers were boxing up whatever wasn’t destroyed at Anderson’s home — with some going to storage and some going to a cleaning facility where it would be determined later if some items could be saved.
“It’s an old house. I’ve lived here since 1972. I’m a widow,” Anderson said. “The home was originally my husband’s and his brother and both of them passed. I live with my sister. My sister-in-law and her sister live on the first floor. We are four widows who live here.”
Anderson said that she was told they would have to move out for two to six months while the water damage to her home is repaired.
“The ceilings have to be taken down, obviously the walls, too. The water is sitting in my light fixtures and the basement is flooded. It came from the room through the attic all the way into the basement,” she said.
“They said we cannot stay here because of all the contaminants but obviously it takes time to pack up 50 years of things. I also have two dogs, so we need to find a place that takes animals.”
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