A cooking fire caused the May 5 blaze that killed a 40-year-old Sun Prairie man at a South Bird Street apartment. Investigators also found that the building’s fire alarm was functional but didn’t go off.
The fire started in the second-floor apartment of Charles Dean Cobb, who died from injuries in the fire.
Sun Prairie Fire Department (SPFD) arrived on scene at 205 S. Bird St. at 9:19 p.m. and assisted three residents trapped in their first level apartments. One resident was treated at a local hospital for smoke inhalation and released.
Investigators determined that the fire was accidental. An electrical engineer determined that a stove burner was on, and a cooking utensil caught fire and likely spread to the wooden cabinets above, according to Sun Prairie Fire Marshall Mark Mlekush. SPFD was assisted in the investigation by the State Fire Marshall and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Some witnesses reported that fire and smoke alarms didn’t go off during the fire.
A smoke alarm was found in Cobb’s apartment. Mlekush said records showed it was installed within the 10-year limit requirement but it couldn’t be determined if the alarm went off.
Mlekush said the fire alarm system in the Bird Street Apartments building was functional but that it was an older model that required a person to activate with a pull-down handle, which he said didn’t happen.
“None of the pull stations in the building had been activated,” Mlekush said, noting the system complied with building codes.
The fatal fire has brought focus to fire safety in apartment buildings, specific older units.
The 16-unit South Bird Street apartment building was built before fire sprinklers were required. Although fire sprinklers save lives, Mlekush said current Wisconsin laws don’t require retro-fitting older buildings with the systems.
International Building Code requires sprinklers system in newly constructed multi-family dwellings that have two or more units but a Wisconsin State law in 2017 has overruled that code for buildings under 20 units. State fire associations have continued to advocate for fire sprinklers in new construction.
Mlekush said the 201 S. Bird St. building passed its recent fire inspections and the owner has done a good job of updating systems in the building and complying with fire safety requirements.
But he says apartment residents should be proactive about fire safety.
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports that half of the residential building fires are caused by cooking-related accidents. To prevent accidents, stay in the kitchen when you are cooking food and if you leave the kitchen, turn the burner off. Keep things that can burn away from cooking areas.
Residents should check out fire safety equipment in their building.
“My recommendation to any apartment residents is to talk to their landlords and learn more about what type of system they have in their buildings,” Mlekush said.
He encouraged apartment dwellers to test their smoke and carbon dioxide alarms and practice fire escape plans. And most importantly, Mlekush noted, is to pay attention when fire and smoke alarms go off.
“If you evacuate the building and it turns out to be nothing, you can go back in,” Mlekush said. “If you evacuate and it turns out to be a fire emergency, you probably just saved your own life.”