Blaze guts local business

By Gus Bode

Flames keep firefighters busy through the night

Paul Russell sifted through the scorched remnants of what used to be his business Monday, only to find that the Fireplace Shoppe and Lighting Studio east of Carbondale on North Reed Station Road had been reduced to melted tin and wooden ash.

There’s no telling how many hours he spent converting the building from a warehouse to a showroom, or how many million nails he drove into the walls to make the place look presentable.

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It took Russell 30 years to build his business, but it only took the fire a couple minutes to tear it all down.

A fire engulfed Russell’s main showroom building about 7 p.m. Sunday, shortly after firefighters began battling a fire that initially appeared to be confined to an electrical sign on the north end of the building.

Carbondale Township Fire Chief Mike Bilderback said further inspection showed that the windows on the west side of the building were blackened with a charcoal buildup, indicating the fire had been burning inside for some time.

Bilderback said when one of the windows broke, flames shot out of the building, consuming the entire west side of the building, which served as a showroom for fireplace inserts, oak furniture and lighting fixtures.

“We thought we had a good knock on it early, but it just took off,” Bilderback said.

Investigators said they may never know what actually started the fire and have officially labeled the cause as “undetermined.” Bilderback said investigators suspect the origin of the fire is electrical.

The only injury reported was that of a single firefighter, who was treated and released at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale for heat exhaustion. Firefighters worked to extinguish the fire all night, and even made a couple of trips to the business Monday to throw water on some smoking pieces of insulation.

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The loss of his showroom and the destruction of merchandise valued at $400,000 doesn’t worry Russell. He has good insurance that will replace the value of his material possessions. He plans on rebuilding his showroom, and because of the insurance he has, his five employees will continue to receive paychecks. He’s really just happy that no one was seriously injured.

Russell learned about the fire when one of his wife’s friends, who lives on Reed Station Road, notified him that the Fireplace Shop and Lighting Studio sign was on fire. When he arrived at his business, the fire was already raging.

The manufacturing facility, located in a separate building connected to the business, was salvaged after Russell was able to inform firefighters where the gas and other utility shut offs were located after he arrived. Russell said a firewall protected the factory from the blaze, and three inches of water that accumulated during the firefighting was the only damage it incurred.

The water pressure in the area was too weak to support the five different water lines firefighters used to douse the blaze. Lake of Egypt and the Williamson County Fire Protection District transported water from Crab Orchard Lake to the scene to assist the firefighters. At one point, firefighters were dousing the building with more 1,000 gallons of water per minute.

Bilderback said the fire would have probably overtaken the building even if a sufficient water supply had been available. He said the fire likely burned inside for a while before passing motorists contacted the fire department about the flaming sign. The building is made of tin, and Bilderback said the tin and the heavy insulation of the building would have trapped the heat and smoke inside, even as the fire grew.

Many other firefighters from departments in Southern Illinois assisted in putting out the flames. The Makanda Township Fire Department provided firefighters, while the City of Carbondale provided manpower and fire engines to fight the fire. In addition, many of the wives and girlfriends of the firefighters who responded brought water as their significant others worked.

Bilderback said the Fireplace Shoppe and Lighting Studio fire is one of the biggest the Carbondale Township Fire Department has ever fought in the 25 years he’s been in the department. Only the fires that destroyed Pyramid Lumber and the Hillside Nursery years ago even compare.

The thing that hurts Russell isn’t the loss of his property. Tin, metal and aluminum can easily be replaced. Buffy, his cat, who lived at the business for more than a decade, most likely perished in the building. She was recognizable to anyone who frequented it. When children would pull on her tail, Buffy would climb on top of the furniture and glare down at them. The cat would also sit on the shoulders of the customers she did fancy. The insurance may be able to replace everything he lost, but Russell said nothing will be able to replace Buffy.

“I feel almost worse about the cat than I do about the building. I’m afraid the smoke probably got her before she got out.”

Reporter Brett Nauman can be reached at [email protected]

Phil Beckman contributed to this story.

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