As Martin Onuh takes the short walk from his doorstep to the burnt shell of his business, CK Food & Fuel at 48th & Nicollet, a Metro Transit bus driver honks and waves. Onuh said he’s been overwhelmed by community support since his morning walk into work Sept. 30, when he broke into a run and found fire trucks at the corner.
Washburn High School students who frequent the store learned Onuh didn’t have insurance, and they set up a GoFundMe campaign that’s raised nearly $26,000. That’s enough to offset at least half his replacement costs, he said.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said. “The community has really picked me up.”
Arson didn’t cause the fire, as initially believed. Instead, Onuh said closed-circuit camera footage showed he left an air-freshening candle burning overnight, which started the counter on fire, ignited nearby cans, and found additional fuel in the cigarette cases.
“I’m kicking myself,” he said.
Nevertheless, Onuh said he feels huge relief that the fire wasn’t caused by arson, and he no longer has to wonder what happened.
2017 spike in fatal fires
Cooking was by far the leading cause of fire in Minnesota in 2017, according to the state fire marshal, while careless smoking was the leading cause of fire deaths.
Sixty-eight people died in Minnesota fires in 2017, the most since 1995 and a 58 percent increase from the prior year. State Fire Marshal Bruce West said he thinks 2017 may have been an anomaly, as 34 people have died to-date in 2018. A longer view of the state’s fire history shows a significant decrease in deaths since the 1970s, attributed to the promotion of smoke alarms, sprinkler systems, new inspections and code enforcement programs.
In Minneapolis, 10 people died in fires in 2017, and three died to-date in 2018.
Shorter escape time
West said residents have just three-four minutes to escape a typical home fire, while historically people had 12-15 minutes to escape.
“The wood that we use now is lighter, the wall coverings are lighter, the joists are lighter, and so the buildings don’t stand up to the heat as long as the older, more well-built houses,” said Minneapolis Assistant Fire Chief Bryan Tyner. “The houses that we build now are so well-insulated for energy conservation that it actually holds in the heat from the fire, which then contributes to the members failing quicker.”
Minneapolis’ century-old housing stock holds up longer in fires, as does vintage furniture made of wood and packed with cotton, he said. But modern furniture made with microfiber and foam burn much faster, as well as the petroleum-based plastics and other synthetic materials increasingly common in homes. (One of Tyner’s instructors referred to modern furniture as “comfortable gasoline.”)
Home design can also play a role in rapidly-growing fires. New homes tend to be larger two-story structures, and the larger the home, the more space available to sustain and grow a fire, according to the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute. Features like tall ceilings and open floor plans can contribute to rapid smoke and fire spread, as more oxygen is available to feed the fire.
In Minneapolis, Tyner said he often sees cooking fires start when people leave cooking unattended or fall asleep, increasingly common when alcohol is involved. The food might burn up, or grease overheats, and flames typically spread to the kitchen cabinets, he said.
Careless smoking is the most common cause of fatal fire, Tyner said, and alcohol is often a factor. A typical scenario is someone lying down with a cigarette and falling asleep, he said, while the couch or bed catches fire and the person continues to sleep.
Space heaters are another common cause of fire when they are left running attended, left close to something flammable, or left running all the time and overheat.
At CK Food & Fuel, Onuh said that all he can do now is wait. Restoring the building is estimated to take six months, he said.
He typically worked every day at the store, from 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
“This has been my life for the past eight years,” he said. “I’m hoping that once the building is restored I’ll be back, bigger and better.”
The GoFundMe campaign is available at gofundme.com/freeck-moneyformartin.
State Fire Marshal fire safety tips
- Carefully attend cooking, particularly during a traditionally deadly period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
- Monitor open-flame candles, which can easily tip. Consider flameless candles.
- Service furnaces regularly to ensure they are not emitting carbon monoxide.
- Install and maintain smoke alarms. Twelve people who died in 2017 did not have working smoke alarms.
- Sleep with the door closed. Research increasingly shows a closed door can protect people from smoke inhalation.
- Keep three feet of clearance around space heaters, far from curtains, bedspreads, couches or blankets.
- Practice home fire drills, planning two ways out of every room. Keep in mind people typically have 3-4 minutes to escape, perhaps in the middle of the night while parents and children are groggy.