The tall, spreading Catalpa tree in Peter and Barb Haack's front yard doesn't look like it spent some six hours burning through the early hours of last Saturday. You have to look closely to discern the black charring at the base of the tree. Then you notice the circular marks where several smaller limbs were cut off by fire fighters.
"It was quite an event," said Barb Haack of the nearly nine hours of drama in her normally quiet and shady front yard at the corner of Ridgeland and Superior.
Luckily for the Haacks, family friend Kevin Swanson was driving by with two friends just after 2 a.m. and saw the tree smoking. While Swanson ran about the yard searching for a garden hose, his two friends pounded on the front door to awaken the Haacks. Meanwhile, a neighbor had heard crackling noises, spotted flames, and called 911.
Responding firefighters arrived to smoke pouring out of the base as well as several limbs. The fire presented them with several problems. First, the tree is situated on a front lawn bordered by tall bushes. They eventually attacked the fire with chain saws from an elevated platform.
However, since firefighters don't make a habit of training to put out interior tree fires, the situation was rather unique. The battalion chief on site realized he needed help, so around 4 a.m. Pat Cassin of the village's forestry department was called.
Cassin told firefighters that the Catalpa was significantly hollowed out in the center. He then recommended several specific cuts that would allow them to pour water down into the center of the tree.
"It being a private tree, all I could do was advise the fire department," said Cassin Tuesday. "A lot of smoke was coming out of cavities higher in the tree."
Haack had nothing but praise for Cassin's efforts, saying he stayed until past 10 a.m.
"He was fabulous. Very calm, very practical," said Haack.
While Haack praised the efforts of the firefighters, she said she was a bit taken aback by the attitude of the battalion chief on scene for the first call. "He seemed very put out at being there," she said. She was particularly critical of the officer's decision to not completely strike the fire.
"He said 'You can just let it smolder,'" Haack recalled. "The disturbing thing is that the fire burned five more hours than it should have."
Just after 8 a.m., the fire department was called back to the house to extinquish a reignited fire.
Haack also rolled her eyes over some of the comments she heard from bystanders.
"I had people ask me, 'You're going to save the tree, right?'" said Haack, rather incredulously. "I was like, yeeeah, that's the plan. Just so long as my house doesn't burn down in the process."
No one knows for sure how the fire started. Oak Park police have termed it "suspicious," but it's unlikely there'll be any formal investigation.
"We probably wouldn't ever investigate," said Battalion Chief Kevin Wiley on Monday. "There was no dollar amount [for damage], except for the tree," said Wiley, who added that his department doesn't assign monetary values to such things as trees and bushes damaged by fire.
Cassin said it's likely the Catalpa will survive. "Catalpa trees are fairly tough trees," he said. "They're drought- and insect-resistant." And apparently fire-resistant.