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In the Aftermath: Finding the Causes of Fires in Chicago

June 19, 2019 by Total Fire and Safety

According to legend, the cause of the greatest fire in Chicago was a cow kicking over a lantern in a barn. In 1871, the entire city of Chicago was engulfed in flames. The fire lasted two days, left 300 people dead and over $200 million in damage.  The event changed Chicago.  Stricter fire codes were implemented, structures were built with different materials, and fire departments were equipped with better equipment and advanced training methods.

Today, fires in Chicago rarely go unexplained due to investigative divisions within the fire departments.  The investigative teams are well trained in how to identify common causes of fires in Chicago. The most common causes of fires in Chicago vary by type.

Common Causes of Residential Fires

  • Overusing extension cords
  • Overusing Christmas lights/stringing them together under furniture
  • Smoking materials (cigarettes, cigars, etc.…)
  • Heating or electrical malfunction
  • Cooking or kitchen fires

Common Causes of Industrial Fires

  • Combustible dust
  • Hot work
  • Flammable gas or liquid
  • Equipment and machinery fires
  • Electrical hazard fires

How Fires are Investigated

Whether it is a residential fire or industrial fire, criminal or accidental, fires in Chicago and around the country all have a determining factor.  The responsibility for finding the determining factor is up to the fire department.  From a public standpoint, finding a cause seems impossible.  How do they do it?

Upon arriving at the scene, firefighters note the color of the flames, the amount of smoke, the rate at which the fire spreads, and the sound it makes.  These are all clues as to what is burning and how it is burning.  It is incumbent of the firefighters to protect the evidence at the scene by:

  • Limiting excessive fire suppression
  • Preventing needless destruction to a property
  • Using markers or cones to identify evidence
  • Writing notes or making voice recordings of observations
  • Covering areas that contain evidence
  • Preserve delicate evidence like shoe or tire tracks

Once the fire is extinguished, the fire investigators dig through the ashes.  They take photographs prior to and during the investigation for documentation.  The objective of investigators is to locate the point of origin.  This is achieved through the char patterns, direction of melt, and heat shadows.  The burn patterns are often “V” shaped like an inverted cone.  The fire burns upward, in a V-shaped pattern away from point of origin.   The location is usually the most damaged by the fire.  Although most of the determination of origin is science-based, there is a little bit of guessing and witness accounts.  Fires in Chicago are likely to have one of four reasons:

  • Electrical issues
  • Natural acts
  • Open flames
  • Human action

Fires in Chicago have decreased over the years with an average of eight fire per day.  Fortunately, fatal fires are rare, but even one is too many.  It’s important for residents and businesses to practice fire safety.  Is your business well equipped against fires?  Total Fire and Safety can help safeguard your building and those occupying it with fire alarms, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, emergency lights and more. We’ll inspect your property to ensure it is up to code and even provide training classes for employees so they know how to use the equipment in an emergency. Give TFS a call today at 630-960-5060.


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