Rochelle Family of 4 People & 4 Pets Alerted to Basement Fire from Smoke Alarms Installed Just 8 Days Earlier

A Fire Below

On the afternoon of May 22, 2022, Clarence Weber and his family stood outside the Rochelle, Illinois home he has lived in for 41 years and watched as local firefighters arrived and starting putting out a fire raging from the basement. Clarence says it was the smoke that he remembers most; thick, dark that he couldn’t see through and toxic, especially after he got a few whiffs of it.

Clarence had heard a small explosion in the basement followed by the high-pitched tone of two smoke alarms going off. At first, he used a fire extinguisher to attempt to put out the fire growing in the basement but soon realized it was getting too big too quickly for the small hand-held extinguisher alone to smother.

“All I saw was flames that I thought I may have been able to put out but the things that were on fire became toxic smoke immediately,” Clarence remembered.

He quickly got himself and his wife, daughter and granddaughter out of the home safely. The four pets of the family including two dogs, a cat and a lizard also all got out with the help of of the firefighters.

Smoke Alarms Above

Just eight days before, on May 14th, 2022 Clarence and his wife had been at home when a knock at the door revealed several volunteers offering to install some new smoke alarms in the house at no cost. They considered if their current alarms were sufficient but determined they had to be at least 20 years old and likely outdated technology, so they welcomed the volunteers.

“I saw it as a gift,” he said. “As a homeowner for many, many years there’s so many different things you keep up on and you’ve got to remember and sometimes the files get crowded [in your mind] ….did you change that battery?”

Red Cross volunteer Jan Fulfs and a partner volunteer from the city of Rochelle installed two 10-year smoke alarms and reviewed some home fire safety information with the family as part of the national Red Cross initiative “Sound the Alarm” where volunteers canvas neighborhoods across the country providing fire safety education and installing new, free smoke alarms.

“I saw it as that, something brand new for me that I didn’t have to pay for at my own cost to upgrade it to brand new technology. That caught my ear right there and it had a ten year battery life,” he said.

Clarence says he feels grateful to have had the new smoke alarms, unsure if the old ones would have gone off in the same situation or if the family had been asleep when the fire started in the basement, where fires often burn for a while undetected.

Resilience Within

During the fire, paramedics, firefighters and neighbors arrived to help including a pair of Red Cross volunteers; Tracy and Tony Bustos, a husband and wife team from Freeport, IL. The Red Cross provided emergency financial assistance, basic essential items, medication refills and connections to many resources to make sure the family had what they needed while dealing with the aftermath of a home fire.

Though mostly contained to the basement, much of Clarence’s house was damaged by either fire, heat, smoke or water including many of the family’s materials related to hobbies. Through it all, Clarence maintains that his whole family and all their pets are safe and he’s thankful for the outpouring of support from the community.

“This little fire is just a bump in the road. We’re blessed at the response and all the things that have fallen into place.”

Rochelle Fire Department Chief Dave Sawlsville says having working smoke alarms and knowledge of multiple ways to escape your home could be the critical difference for families who experience a home fire which is why partnering with the Red Cross for “Sound the Alarm” aligned with their goals for the community. He says it was “eye-opening” to see how many families did not have smoke alarms that worked or did not have any at all.

“Today’s fire house fire is so much different than the house fire of ten years ago or 15 years ago. It’s it’s so much hotter and so much faster and and the black smoke is so much thicker, you know, that it’s it’s an entirely possible for you to get turned around in your own house and that’s the message we’ve been trying to tell people,” Chief Sawlsville said.

The Rochelle Fire Department and the Red Cross continue to install smoke alarms, a small device that can increase a person’s chances of surviving a home fire by 50%. In the event of a fire, you may only have 2 minutes or less to get out of a home.

“It makes a difference; it could have been my entire house without them and possibly the loss of a life or a pet,” Clarence said.

Clarence and his family are staying with a relative until they can move back into their home and says he is “thankful for not only the gift of the smoke alarms but the relief that was brought forward immediately,” he said. “It raised my level of belief in humanity quite a bit that day and the following weeks after that; all the surrounding people and the support from this incident has been overwhelming and I’m grateful, very grateful.”

To learn more about the “Sound the Alarm” initiative or to get involved as a volunteer with the Red Cross, visit

Written by Illinois Region Communications Manager Holly Baker

Red Cross Consistently Shelters Handful of Residents and Their Pets after Chemtool Fire in Rockton

The Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) is parked among other first responders working to help after the Chemtool Inc. fire began in Rockton, IL

“This really put Rockton on the map, though I wish it was for a different reason,” Lori Oostendorp thought aloud in the Roscoe Middle School gym. Seated next to her at a round table was her mother, Kathryn Markley. They both were in the evacuation zone after a fire started at Chemtool Inc. just down the road from their homes on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Mother and daughter Kathryn Markley (R) and Lori Oostendorp (L) embrace in the Red Cross shelter and spend time chatting with other evacuees over meals and snacks provided by volunteers.

The American Red Cross of Illinois has converted the middle school into an evacuation site, first and then a full shelter when local authorities made it clear those who evacuated could not immediately go home. The Red Cross is providing the air-conditioned space, meals, snacks, water, personal hygiene items, cots and blankets and more to the people who left so quickly.

Other family members joined them; Kathryn says in her haste to evacuate she grabbed her two cats first and says she was thankful it wasn’t a problem to bring them to the shelter. They’re kept away from other guests, but she says there’s no way she was leaving her 2 black cats, Ferrari and Neelix, behind.

Kathryn Markley plays with one of her cats in the Red Cross shelter.

“I think a pet is like having a baby, you are responsible for that life,” Kathryn Markley declared, and finds comfort in having her pets nearby during the evacuation.

On Wednesday, more furry friends were in the shelter to provide support to all those experiencing being out of their homes in the form of comfort dogs. Golden retrievers were available for guests of the shelter to meet and pet and relieve some of the stress they may be feeling.

One of five comfort dogs smiles while visiting the Roscoe Middle School Red Cross Shelter in Rockton.

The mother/daughter team isn’t the only set of family members; Patrick Mira-Contreras and his brother are also staying at the middle school during the evacuation order and experiencing national attention for the first time.

“You always hear about this stuff happening and its almost like its not real….I’ve never been in a disaster-type situation like this before but from what I’ve experienced you guys are doing a great job of offering water, food, accommodations and what not,” he said.

Patrick Mira-Contreras maintains a positive attitude for his family and the handful of other people staying in the shelter.

Mira-Contreras is focusing in mindfulness during this time of being uncomfortable and trying to stay positive, an attitude that is rubbing off on others staying in the shelter.

“If you have a good outlook, things will work out,” he said confidently.

A sense of cameraderie is evident throughout the people during their time, and at the age of 94 Mickey Tooley says she’s happy she had a place to go after the shock of the blast and knew some of the other people there.

“The smoke was just pouring out from the fire and I kinda left in a hurry,” she laughed, “and I forgot all my meds but they were so nice,” and she was able to get her medications with the help of the Red Cross and local police.

Ninety-four year old Mickey Tooley rests in the bleachers of the middle school gym after lunch.

Tooley says she’s hoping to go home soon but if the Red Cross shelter is where she has to be in the meantime, she’s grateful.

“The Red Cross has been really wonderful with all the food and snacks! Everyone has been so nice but everyone will be really happy to get home.”

“You guys go above and beyond to try and make it as comfortable under the circumstances as you can,” said Oostendorp.

Sometimes the shelter guest numbers dwindle to just 5 or 6, but as long as people need a place to stay the Red Cross is working to be there for them and provide resources such as this. Executive Director of the American Red Cross of Northwest Illinois, Leslie Luther, explained to local news media how the Red Cross is providing a safe place for anyone who seeks it.

“It doesn’t matter if its one person or one hundred, our volunteers are trained and ready to be a source of comfort during an uncertain time like this,” Luther said. “This was unexpected, but we’re prepared for disasters and to help with easing the big way they affect the people experiencing them.”

Executive Director Leslie Luther speaks with reporters from local Rockford media.

If you are displaced and are looking for support, you can visit the shelter at the Roscoe Middle School on Elevator Road or call 877-597-0747.

Written by Holly Baker, Communications Manager