Severe thunderstorms that blew through the Barrington area in the early hours of Thursday, May 3rd, 2018 were caused by “temperatures in the mid-80s and gulf moisture” that led to a “very unstable atmosphere,” according to the National Weather Service. 

For Barrington Hills residents Tom and Barb Strauss, the storms caused much more: a devastating house fire – caused by a random lightning strike – that left their home uninhabitable.  While the fire consumed much of their home, they credit responding firefighters for providing courteous, responsive services that prevented any loss of life and helped save some of their most precious valuables.

“That’s When I Saw Flames”

Spring storms are a common occurrence in the Chicago metropolitan area.  Nothing seemed out of sorts on the night of May 2nd, as Mrs. Strauss prepared to go to sleep.

“The evening before the fire, I went to bed around 10:30,” Mrs. Strauss remembered.  “There was a strong storm in the area with a great deal of rain, lightning, and thunder.  Then, sometime around 2:00 a.m., I woke up to a huge bolt of lightning and the sound of thunder.  I sat straight up in bed, but honestly did not imagine my house had been hit.”

More than two hours later, Mrs. Strauss was again awakened by “a sound I can only describe as static.”  She first assumed it was coming from the house’s air tub, which sometimes switched on following a power surge.  Upon further investigation, she discovered that the sound was being made by the home’s intercom system.  She proceeded to her husband’s study to turn the system off.

“While in the study, I noticed what I thought was fog outside,” she recalled.  “That’s when I saw flames shooting from the roof and the second story of our home engulfed.”

Mrs. Strauss grabbed her shoes and cell phone, then evacuated the house with her dog.  She called 911 at 4:39 a.m.

At 4:43 a.m., Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District firefighters arrived on-scene  to discover “a large, multi-story house with flames visible through the roof,” according to the department’s official Incident Response Report. 

After confirming with Mrs. Strauss that no one was in the house (Mr. Strauss was out of town on business), firefighters worked aggressively to bring the fire under control. 

Potentially Catastrophic

Battalion Chief Brett Haller’s first thought upon seeing the home’s roof and attic consumed by fire was that the situation could result in a catastrophic loss for the homeowners.

“In our past experience, a fire of this size could easily result in the house burning down to its foundation.  We had to act immediately,” the 20-year fire service veteran recalled.

Fire crews positioned a “deck gun” located on top of one of the engines and aimed it directly into the home’s attic, delivering 750 gallons of water directly on to the fire in just minutes.  According to Battalion Chief Haller, this approach helped “reset the clock” on the fire and gave crews additional time to deploy to specific quadrants around the property.  Once in position, firefighters continued attacking the fire from multiple angles.

“Crews surrounded the house and positioned themselves to deliver a 360-degree attack, which contained the fire and prevented it from spreading to other sections of the home,” Battalion Chief Haller explained.  “Credit goes to the firefighters on the ground for staying in constant communication with each other and working as a team.”

Incident Command also upgraded the call to a second alarm and enlisted the support of other area fire departments.

Coordinating Assets

Responding units from surrounding departments reported to the staging area, which was established less than 1,000 feet from the property line.  From there, firefighters sprang into action and coordinated their responses based on orders provided by officers responsible for water supply, safety, operations, crowd control, and other duties.  Battalion Chief Haller estimates that over 100 firefighters from 38 fire departments were on the ground simultaneously.

“The way the separate fire departments coordinated with each other was amazing,” Mrs. Strauss said when recalling firefighters’ efforts that morning.  “They handled the situation exactly as I would have hoped.”

Uninterrupted Water Supply

It doesn’t take an expert in fire suppression science to understand that water is useful for putting out a fire.  Likewise, a plentiful, uninterrupted water supply is a critical necessity when trying to save a 9,000 square-foot structure from burning to the ground – especially in a residential area where there are no fire hydrants.

BCFPD “tenders” (water supply vehicles) and tankers from other departments joined a continuous “circuit” that involved delivering thousands of gallons of water to the fire site for use by firefighters,  leaving to refill their tanks, and then returning with more water.

“We were NEVER without water,” Mrs. Strauss marveled.    

“How Much They Cared”

Although the house was deemed uninhabitable due to extensive fire damage, the multi-department effort was successful in bringing the fire under control and preventing its further spread.  As crews began to gain the upper hand, they also began planning for salvage operations. 

“As various parts of the house collapsed, I started to realize that we were losing all of our belongings,” Mrs. Strauss explained.  “I remember seeing the despair on firefighters’ faces.  I really felt like they were as upset as I was.  It seemed as if each time a firefighter passed by me, they would express how sorry they felt for our loss.  It was remarkable to see how much they cared,” she added.

As firefighters worked to contain and extinguish the fire, they told Mrs. Strauss that they were going to move multiple vehicles out of the garage to prevent any damage.  The firefighter who entered the house to get her car keys came out carrying “my purse and a picture of our three sons,” Mrs. Strauss remembered.  “I could not believe he took time to grab those precious items as well.”

With the fire under control, crews turned their focus to recovering personal items from the damaged home.  BCFPD Captain Angela Grandgeorge, a 20-year fire service veteran, was assigned to oversee salvage operations conducted by BCFPD crews.

“A house fire is one of the most devastating events that can happen to a person or family,” she explained.  “Personal items such as family heirlooms, photo albums, and other mementos are often all in that one central location.  Many of those things can never be replaced, so we always do our best to save what we can.  It’s one of the most important tasks we perform.”

Salvaging Memories & Family Keepsakes

Captain Grandgeorge and members of the salvage crew spoke with Mrs. Strauss before entering the house to determine the types of items she needed most, such as prescription medications or checkbooks, credit cards, and other financial assets.  Mrs. Strauss emphasized the things that meant the most to her: her children’s pictures and other personal belongings.

“I was most concerned about saving the items that held so much meaning to our family: photos, art, and our three sons’ keepsakes,” she remembered.

Access to areas where these belongings were located proved difficult, due to structure collapse.  Captain Grandgeorge’s team entered the house via ladder through a bathroom window and “were able to reach some of what the family had requested,” she explained.  “Mrs. Strauss’ son specifically asked me if we could save their Christmas ornaments from the basement, and the guys were able to find the boxes he wanted.”

Some of the recovered items had sustained water damage.  Firefighters spread them out on tarps to dry.

“The firefighters took the initiative to recover what they could,” Mrs. Strauss explained.  “They never once acted as if it was an imposition.”

Mr. Strauss, who had returned from the west coast and was standing on his front lawn less than six hours after getting the initial phone call from his wife, couldn’t believe what he saw.

Looking back on that day, the Strauss family is filled with gratitude and admiration for the efforts made by firefighters on their behalf: the rapid response; the multi-departmental teamwork that ensured a sustained, uninterrupted water supply; and the salvage operations that took place once the fire was brought under control.

Service, Professionalism, Teamwork

BCFPD Fire Chief James Kreher offered high praise for the service, professionalism, and teamwork exhibited by BCFPD crews and their peers from surrounding departments. 

“Narrow roads and a lack of fire hydrants are two particular challenges we face throughout our district.  We train regularly to overcome those challenges,” he explained.  “I was very pleased to witness crews’ response to this fire and how everyone from so many departments worked together to achieve a common goal.

“We are the fire service.  That’s what we do.” 

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