The fire that destroyed a home in New Gloucester Wednesday morning marked the fourth major fire in Cumberland County in three days, but there appears to be no correlation between those blazes or a string of Portland Dumpster fires set by an arsonist over the weekend.
“You have peaks and valleys,” New Gloucester Fire Chief Gary Sacco said of the frequency of fires. “We’re heading toward the peak, I hope. I’d like to get down in the valley.”
The quick succession of building fires – house fires in Portland and Falmouth Monday and a furniture maker’s workshop in Gorham Tuesday – draws attention to the importance of fire safety. Making sure electrical work is done by a professional, routine chimney cleaning and having working smoke detectors are messages that get extra mileage when the public’s attention is focused on fires, officials say.
“It’s like having a car,” said State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas. “If you want a reliable car, you have to maintain it.”
Fire safety related to heating systems has been especially important as the unusually cold, long winter drags on.
The fire that destroyed the home at 52 Maple St. in New Gloucester on Wednesday appears to have started around a kerosene heater about 3:30 a.m. The resident, Si Leavitt, was lying on a couch near the heater when he noticed the area around the heater had ignited, said Sacco. The heater was about a foot from the couch, much closer than most manufacturers recommend.
Leavitt woke the four children in the house, all of whom appeared to be younger than 10, and their mother, while he tried to put the fire out with a sleeping bag, Sacco said. The family escaped without injury and called 911. By the time firefighters arrived, the structure was engulfed in flames.
The building consisted of a tow-behind camper-trailer, a wooden addition on the side and a lean-to roof over half the structure, Sacco said. Electricity was provided by an extension cord hooked into a nearby utility pole that had previously serviced a mobile home that once stood there, he said.
The setup did not meet local building codes, he said.
The structure did have smoke alarms, but they weren’t working. The family could not say why, Sacco said.
The Red Cross was contacted to assist the family.
Commenting on the series of recent fires, Sacco said they sometimes comes in waves.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why there’s quiet time and there’s busy time,” he said.
The house fire on Columbia Street in Portland Monday was determined to be the result of faulty wiring. The fire in Gorham started near an exhaust fan and may also have been electrical. The house fire in Falmouth may have been related to renovations being done the day before.
One person was charged with setting trash on fire Sunday in downtown Portland, and is being investigated in connection with eight Dumpster fires.
A prolonged winter can put a strain on heating systems and sometimes workers will use portable heaters to prevent renovations from freezing.
The winter does mean more indoor heat sources like wood stoves and heaters that contribute to fires, Sacco said. In the summer the sources are external, like grills, or out-of-control brush pile burning, he said.
Thomas said a review of a state database on fires this winter shows a high number of chimney fires.
“There’s a lot of chimney activity, not necessarily things that have broken out into full-blown structure fires,” he said. “My concern is people are pushing the envelopes on chimneys.”
Thomas said the amount of wood people have burned this year because of the winter weather and high oil prices, mean many people have burned through their seasoned wood.
“Now they’re getting into the green stuff, which is certainly problematic for developing creosote,” he said, referring to the flammable byproduct of wood burning that coats the inside of a chimney. Thomas said people should be more aggressive than usual this year about maintaining their chimney.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: