WATERVILLE — Officials suspect someone started a fire Monday at the edge of the Pine Grove Cemetery off Grove Street that tore through trees, brush, leaves and trash in the city’s South End.

“There’s a story of a kid running out of the cemetery,” Fire Chief David LaFountain said at the scene Monday. “A forest ranger’s going to be chasing that down, but it looks like it’s going to be a human element fire, one way or the other.”

Crews were able to keep the fire from spreading to the cemetery. But the flames dug into thick piles of brush and trash, posing a problem for firefighters and highlighting longstanding concerns about waste at the cemetery’s edge.

“The biggest problem here is, the stuff they’ve been throwing over the embankment so many years is really deep — brush, stumps, leaves,” LaFountain said. “Once fire gets down in there, it’s really tough to put out. We might be coming back here a few times in a week. We’re digging the best we can, putting class A foam on it.”

Mike Lessard and his girlfriend, Kelly Mushero, stood on their Water Street lawn, watching firefighters use rakes and hoes to dig at the fire in deep piles of stumps, brush, leaves and trash.

Lessard, a former city councilor, said he has complained for 30 years about people throwing trash over the hill at the edge of the cemetery and predicted a fire would break out one day and cause a problem.

“This is exactly what we said was going to happen,” Lessard said, as smoke blew across the road to his property. “They throw tires, trees, old flowers from the cemetery. We caught a guy down here from Clinton with a whole trailer loaded with trash — that was a while ago.

“The trash is 15 to 20 feet thick. I know there’s tires, big couches, broken furniture, refuse form the cemetery. Somebody dumped some big giant pieces of concrete over the bank.”

LaFountain said the fire appeared to have started at the back of cemetery and worked its way toward Water Street.

“The wind blew it toward Water Street and right now, we’ve got the road closed because we’ve got a four-inch hose in the road,” he said.

The fire was reported at 3:08 p.m. by Waterville resident Duane Wheeler, who said he was at the cemetery visiting his parents’ and a friend’s graves. Wheeler, who owns Dairy Queen restaurants on both College Avenue and Kennedy Memorial Drive, said a boy in the cemetery told him he saw the fire, but did not have good cellphone coverage and didn’t know who to call. Wheeler used his own cellphone to call 911.

“The flames were 25 to 30 feet high,” Wheeler said. “It was unbelievable.”

About 30 firefighters from Waterville, Winslow and Fairfield converged on both the cemetery, off Grove Street, and Water Street, just north of where Carter Memorial Bridge spans the Kennebec River.

Fire quickly spread down a steep hill from the cemetery to a wooded area which is about a quarter-mile north of the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District and half-mile north of Waterville Sewerage District.

Waterville Fire Lt. Scott Holst said he drove to the fire scene from Winslow, stopped on Carter Memorial Bridge, and could see the fast-moving flames from there.

Firefighters used portable pumps to get water from the river, according to Waterville Fire Lt. Marshall King. The Waterville Public Works Department was called to help dig with an excavator.

Forest Ranger Aaron Bailey was investigating the fire, which occurred on a day when the fire danger level in the region was high, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Bailey said spring is a tricky time for fires. It can rain for a day, but then the sun comes out and can and dry out the grass and dry leaves and fire can spread quickly, he said. He said about 40 fires had occurred this year in his district, which stretches from Woolwich to Dexter.

“We’re all over the place,” said Bailey, who is headquartered in Benton.

Lessard said there is another trash dump closer to the ball field and boat landing off Water Street, posing a similar fire danger.

South End resident Scott McAdoo walked about half-mile to the fire scene from his home and stood on Lessard’s lawn. He said he was afraid that if the city passes a pay-as-you-throw trash disposal program, as is being discussed right now, dumping like that occurring in the South End will increase.

LaFountain urged people to be mindful of fire danger. He noted that some people stop their vehicles at traffic lights and toss cigarettes out the window, which can cause fires.

Amy Calder — 861-9247 | [email protected] | Twitter: @AmyCalder17