OTTUMWA — While scoops of ice cream soothed everyone's sweet tooth, a more serious message sat behind an annual fundraiser: everyone, no matter their income level, needs a smoke detector in their home.
Evans Middle School's student council hosted the sixth annual "Fire and Ice" Ice Cream Social at the north fire station Monday night, the proceeds from which will be used to provide free smoke detectors to homeowners throughout Wapello County.
"We're raising money for people who can't afford smoke detectors," said eighth-grader Sydney Damerval. "One year we saved a house. The money we make here buys smoke detectors for people, and one of ours was in the house that burned down a couple years ago."
In a spurt of fires throughout the month of April in Ottumwa, firefighters discovered that every home either didn't have a smoke detector or the smoke detector didn't have batteries. Five structure fires in four days had the Ottumwa Fire Department on alert and eager to warn the community about what could happen if a home is lacking a smoke detector.
In some cases, pure luck saved the lives of Ottumwans unaware their home was ablaze. A few weeks ago, an 8-year-old girl saved her grandmother and great-grandmother after a fire that started in the kitchen began blocking the only exit.
"They had no working smoke detectors," Mike Craff, assistant fire chief, previously told the Courier. "If it hadn't been for this 8-year-old girl being up and awake, I don't know that they would have made it out of there."
A house fire last weekend also demonstrated the importance of working smoke detectors. Four adults and three children were uninjured in a blaze that ruined their home at 621 S. Sheridan Ave. at 5:51 p.m. Friday.
Deputy Fire Chief Cory Benge said the house is "pretty much a total loss."
"It came in as a living room on fire and when we got there the whole first floor was on fire," Benge said.
One tenant suffered from slight smoke inhalation while trying to extinguish the fire and get everyone out of the house safely, but he did not go to the hospital, Benge said.
"It started in the area of an electric chair," Benge said. "But it's burnt so bad ... it's going to go down as 'undetermined' for a cause."
Hopefully this fire is evidence that the Ottumwa Fire Department is getting the word out about the importance of smoke detectors, Benge said. In a string of several structure fires the department has been called to in the past month, this was the first fire where the home had a working smoke detector, he said.
"We hate to see fires in the first place, but if we're going to have one we'd like to see working smoke detectors," he said.
So far, the department has handed out or installed 278 smoke detectors in homes in Wapello County. Those who need a smoke detector can contact the department at 641-683-0666.
Eighth-grader Damerval said before the fundraiser even began Monday afternoon, the council had raised $400 through ticket sales at school. The council's goal was to raise more than $1,000 Monday night or "as much as we can," she said.
To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.