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Is Your Neighborhood At Risk For House Fires? Search Here

By  Mina Bloom and Andrea V. Watson | May 2, 2017 5:41am | Updated on May 2, 2017 5:31pm

 Austin, where this fire took place in 2012, was one of the most at-risk for fires and injuries, according to DataKind.
Austin, where this fire took place in 2012, was one of the most at-risk for fires and injuries, according to DataKind.
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DNAinfo/Geoff Ziezulewicz; DataKind

ENGLEWOOD — Residents of the South and West Sides are at a far greater risk for house fires — and more likely to get injured or die in a fire — than residents in other neighborhoods across the city and nation, data shows.

In fact, parts of Englewood are among the most at risk of getting injured in a house fire of any neighborhoods in the nation.

Not only are there far more fires reported in neighborhoods like Englewood and Austin but those fires tend to cause more injuries and fatalities, according to a comprehensive national map of fire risk created by New York-based nonprofit DataKind and more than 50 volunteers.

Homes in those neighborhoods are also far less likely to have working smoke detectors, the data shows.

The DataKind map of fire risk, which launched in June of 2016, tracked the number of fires in individual census tracts over the past five years and the likelihood a home has a smoke detector using surveys conducted by the U.S. Census. Researchers also looked at the severity of injuries suffered by residents whose homes are hit by fires to create a fire-risk score.


The differences are stark: One part of Englewood — between Morgan, 63rd, Racine and 59th — has a house fire-risk score of 78, the ninth highest in the nation. Its score is nearly four times higher than a part of Gold Coast bounded by Bellevue, Michigan Chicago and State. Four other census tracts in Englewood are in the 100 riskiest census tracts in the nation.

Other neighborhoods that have parts with risk scores over 70 include West Englewood, Back of the Yards, Austin, Roseland and Humboldt Park. On the other end of the spectrum, neighborhoods with parts with less than 30 points of risk include West Town, The Loop, Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Many neighborhoods on the North Side, particularly the ones along the lakefront, aren't at risk at all. 

Overall, on a national scale, residents of Cook County are at a greater risk for house fires than residents in Manhattan or Los Angeles, but not by much, according to the data. Cook County has a risk score of 49, which is only slightly higher than New York County (44) and Los Angeles County (45).

The findings are sobering but not surprising to Larry Langford, spokesman for the Chicago Fire Department.

"I've been responding to fires for literally decades. That's where all the house fires are," said Langford, referring to the South and West Sides.

"A fire house on the North Side can go for weeks without having a real fire. A fire house on the South Side might end up with two or three or four fires a week. It's quite an imbalance."

A fire in the 7100 block of South Sangamon Street injured three people last month. [DNAinfo/Andrea Watson]

Dave Cook lives in one of the riskiest areas in the country, the 7100 block of South Sangamon Street. On March 4, a huge fire broke out in the basement of a home two houses down from his. Three people were injured, including a 26-year-old woman who leapt from a second-story window, a 66-year-old man who suffered smoke inhalation and a 46-year-old woman who was burned, officials said at the time.

“It was a major fire, a very bad one,” Cook said. “The lady had to jump from the window.” There were fire trucks taking up the entire block.

Cook said he is concerned about fire safety but thinks many people aren’t paying attention and put the whole block at risk. He uses surge protectors and has smoke detectors in his house, but many people don't. Plus, there are six vacant boarded up buildings on the block.

“Our eyes are open on this block,” Cook said about homeowners in the area, although he worries about the vacant buildings and those in multi-unit buildings that don't have surge protectors.

Humboldt Park, particularly the western portion, is another neighborhood where house fire risk is high compared to other neighborhoods in the city.

To combat this, local organizations in Humboldt Park are banding together to fight against a surge of house fires in the neighborhood. Just a few weeks ago, a house fire on St. Louis Avenue displaced a total of 15 residents.

The organizations — La Casa Norte, American Red Cross, Center for Changing Lives, Latin United Community Housing Association, NHS of West Humboldt Park, Chicago Commons and 26th Ward's Ald. Roberto Maldonado — are all teaming up on an outreach event May 6, where teams of trained volunteers will visit the homes of at least 300 interested residents to install smoke detectors and discuss fire safety.

A fire at 953 N. St. Louis Ave. displaced 15 people in Humboldt Park in March. [DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]

According to Langford, there are a number of reasons why house fires occur at a much higher rate on the South and West Sides than on the North Side. For one, there's a much higher rate of poverty on the South and West Sides, which leads to heating issues in homes.

"You have a lot of homes that are under heated or not heated at all. And people will use whatever they can, which is generally space heaters," Langford said. "These cords heat up and sometimes they're under a carpet and sometimes they ignite."

That, plus poor electrical wiring and old structures, create a recipe for a house fire.

Langford also pointed to the higher crime rate. In neighborhoods with more crime like Englewood and Humboldt Park, residents put bars or glass blocks in their windows to keep criminals out, but Langford said those protections can mean life or death in the event of a house fire.

"It takes time, and time is your enemy" when battling a fire, Langford said.

Despite this, the number of house fire fatalities in Chicago have decreased dramatically since the 1970s, according to Langford. Back then, the city was seeing nearly 200 fatalities per year and now the city typically sees about 20 per year.

"All of that is due to better education and the mandatory smoke detector law ... people do follow that in many cases," said Langford, who emphasizes that even one fire victim is too many.


The best way to defend against a house fire?

Battery-filled smoke detectors, Langford said.

"The truth is a smoke detector is so cheap that anyone can find one in the store for less than $5 a piece. That's the most efficient investment you can make ... that detector and keeping a battery in it," he said. "That insurance has a great payback: getting two or three minutes additional warning time."

That figures into the motivation to make the map. By identifying "high-risk neighborhoods," DataKind and its partner American Red Cross can target the areas that are most in need of fire safety education and free smoke alarms.

Humboldt Park residents should email info@lacasanorte.org or call 773-276-4900 to sign up for free smoke detector installation on May 6. Residents west of the park are also eligible for this service.

To volunteer, contact Rachel Bhagwat at either rachel@lacasanorte.org or 773-276-4900. Volunteers will receive training, breakfast and lunch courtesy of Red Cross.