The Ottumwa Courier

December 12, 2013

Interactive: Firefighters' busy year coming to an end

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — This year has been unlike any in recent memory for the Ottumwa Fire Department.

Over the course of 2013, Ottumwa firefighter have handled 40 separate structure fires. Chief Tony Miller said that is more than any other Iowa city this year on a per capita basis. It is way above Ottumwa’s normal year. (Click here for our interactive map.)

In 2012, Ottumwa saw 34 structure fires. There were 30 in 2011. Miller figures anything from 27-33 fires in a year is pretty normal.

But normal doesn’t apply to 2013. In a stretch of only three days, from April 9-11, there were five separate structure fires scattered around town. The two on April 9 were less than 190 minutes apart.

All told, there were 10 fires that month, an average of one every three days.

“April,” Miller said in what may be the understatement of the year, “was not that good a month.”

The closest two fires came to simultaneous reports happened on June 7, when calls for fires on Gow Street and N. Hancock Street came in only 33 minutes apart.

Remarkably, the injuries have been minimal and no one has died in a fire in Ottumwa this year. That’s a combination of luck and desperation, Miller said. In one instance three people literally dove through their windows to escape, and did so with only minor injuries.

Arson wasn’t a major cause for fires. There have only been five cases classified as arson. All took place in the second half of the year — after the rate of structure fires began declining.

Miller said the department knows the cause of each of the arson, but several remain under investigation. Knowing the cause and knowing the culprit, then having the evidence to charge the person in court, are all different things.

One case is pending. Christopher Jordan was charged in October with arson, conspiracy to commit a forcible felony, using a juvenile to commit an indictable offense and stalking. He has pleaded not guilty, and arraignment is scheduled for next week.

What frustrates Miller is that, to his mind, too many of these fires are more serious than they should be. Too many homes lack smoke detectors. That means the fires aren’t discovered as quickly, causing greater damage and putting lives at risk.

It shouldn’t be that way.

“With the program we have, there’s no reason not to have them,” Miller said. “Not having alarms is not an issue.”

The Ottumwa Fire Department has the smoke detectors to install in homes. They’re free, thanks to grants from a number of different groups, including the Legacy Foundation and the Red Cross. Some people are taking advantage of the program — Miller said firefighters installed 10 smoke detectors Thursday — but it more should be using it.

Making the call is easy. And after a year like this, there are plenty of examples of why getting the alarms installed is a good idea.

Click a flag for the date and location of the fire. Red flags indicate arson.