Empty cardboard boxes stored too close to a wood stove started the deadly fire in Orrington early Saturday that killed a father and his three young children, investigators at the state Fire Marshal’s Office said Monday.

All four victims died of smoke inhalation, said the state Medical Examiner’s Office. The bodies of the three children were found on the floor of a second-story bedroom, and the father’s body was found at the head of the stairs, also on the second floor.

Investigators met Monday morning with the only survivor, Christine Johnson, in her hospital room and told her about their findings. The 31-year-old woman was rescued from the roof of her burning home early Saturday and taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where she was treated for smoke inhalation.

The blaze at the single-family home on Dow Road was Maine’s deadliest fire in 20 years.

Johnson’s husband, Benjamin Johnson III, 30, and the couple’s three children — 9-year-old Ben, 8-year-old Leslie and 4-year-old Ryan — perished in the fire. The blaze was reported shortly after 2:30 a.m. by neighbors who heard a woman screaming. She turned out to be Christine Johnson. When firefighters arrived at the home, she was on the roof of the home, which was engulfed in flames.

The house’s furnace was not working. Fire investigators said the home was heated with the wood stove and a propane heater insert in the fireplace.

The family had returned from a night of bowling late Friday and then started the stove, located in a first-floor living room. The boxes were within inches of the stove and were likely used to help ignite
kindling. Also found near the wood stove was a container of lighter fluid, which likely helped spread the fire once the cardboard boxes ignited.

Neighbors and firefighters reported not hearing any working smoke detectors in the house.

State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said combustible items should be kept three feet away from any wood stove and flammable liquid should never be used to start a wood stove fire. Thomas also said families should practice escape plans from a house and have a central meeting spot outside.

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