The Old Orchard Beach fire chief – who has worked previously at numerous fire departments in Maine and elsewhere in New England and the U.S. – was charged with arson early Saturday for allegedly setting the April 15 fire that burned 42 acres of the Jones Creek Marsh and forced the evacuation of a nearby condominium complex.

Fire Chief Ricky Plummer was arrested at 2 a.m. Saturday at his mother-in-law’s house in Scarborough. He was still being held Saturday night at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland. Bail was set at $10,000.

Fires that took place in other towns where Plummer served as chief are also being investigated, a state official said.

A dozen investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Maine Forest Service went to Old Orchard Beach on Friday afternoon with search warrants and seized computers at the fire station and in Plummer’s town-owned car, as well as his cellphone, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Investigators interviewed Plummer and arrested him after consulting with the York County District Attorney’s Office.

Plummer, 59, has been the fire chief in Old Orchard Beach since 2014. His annual salary is $70,500.

The four-alarm fire on April 15 erupted in a marsh around the Little River. As more than 100 firefighters worked to put out the blaze, residents of the Davenport condo complex were evacuated. Flames came within 100 feet of the buildings.

No one was injured.

As the flames neared the complex, Plummer told reporters, firefighters nearly had to pull out of the area.

“Flames were 20 to 30 feet high, just a wall of fire and heat,” Plummer said at the time. “It could have been a lot worse. It could have burned this condominium down.”

Before coming to Old Orchard Beach in late 2014, Plummer had been the fire chief in North Yarmouth for about two years.

He has been a firefighter since 1974, according to an article he wrote for the Albemarle County Fire & Rescue Department in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was hired as assistant chief of operations in 2004.

He has also worked at fire departments in Arundel, Biddeford, Standish, North Berwick and Gray; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Marlborough, Massachusetts; and Cocoa, Florida.

McCausland said investigators will review fires that took place during his tenure as fire chief in other communities where he worked.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office determined a fire that destroyed the vacant 36-room Americana Motel in Old Orchard Beach on Jan. 20, 2015, was arson. No one was hurt in the fire at the building, which was slated for demolition.
The Fire Marshal’s Office said severe damage prevented investigators from identifying the cause of a fire that destroyed Wescustogo Hall, a North Yarmouth landmark next to the fire station, on Aug. 30, 2013, when Plummer was the town’s fire chief. Several firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion during the fire.

Gregory A. Payson, North Yarmouth’s fire chief, said in a statement Saturday that there were no unresolved fires in town from the time when Plummer was the chief there. Payson said in a telephone interview that the Wescustogo fire predated his time in town, but there’s no “active investigation” into the blaze.

In his statement, Payson also expressed sympathy for the citizens and firefighters in Old Orchard Beach and asked people to reserve judgment until the justice system does “the work it was designed to do.”

ALMOST NEVER AN ISOLATED EVENT

McCausland, who also is spokesman for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said Saturday that past arson arrests of firefighters have involved volunteer firefighters.

“I can’t remember a time when a chief of a major fire department has been charged with arson,” he said.

Two experts who have studied the phenomenon of firefighters who set fires said the incidents are almost never isolated and are not that rare.

“It’s more common than we would like to believe,” said John K. Murphy, a retired deputy fire chief and lawyer in North Bend, Oregon, who specializes in legal cases involving fire departments and firefighters.

Murphy said the cases he’s seen usually involve young firefighters who set fires to prove their mettle. Other cases involve firefighters looking for monetary rewards, like forest rangers who are paid based on the number of fires they fight, firefighters looking for overtime, or firefighters looking to justify their salaries.

The arsonists, he said, often exhibit a fascination with fires – the same curiosity that led them to firefighting as a profession also leads them to set fires.

Such people never outgrew a youthful fixation on fires, said Marcel Chappuis, a clinical psychologist who set up a program to treat juvenile firestarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Chappuis said larger professional departments generally include psychological exams as part of their hiring process, in part to screen out those who might be predisposed to set fires, as well as to identify other red flags, such as an inability to get along with others, difficulty dealing with stress, or substance abuse issues.

Chappuis said young children, generally 5 to 10 years old, have a natural curiosity about fires, but anger issues lead some to actually set fires. Most children outgrow that fascination, he said, unless they have some underlying psychological issues that drive them to continue to start fires as they get older. But, echoing Murphy, he said there are cases where firefighting arsonists are driven by financial motives.

He said there are usually two to three cases a month, nationally, in which firefighters are accused of setting fires. In 90 percent of those cases, he said, the arsonists have set more than one fire.

SURPRISE IN OLD ORCHARD BEACH

Plummer grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and once served as town manager in Milton, New Hampshire.

According to the article he wrote, he served on the board of directors of the New Hampshire Chiefs and the New Hampshire Hazardous Materials Team, and was appointed by then New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to the New Hampshire Fire Commission.

Town officials and others who know Plummer expressed surprise at the arrest. Some said they hoped there is another explanation for the cause of the marsh fire.

Old Orchard Beach town councilors were informed of the arrest Saturday morning by Town Manager Larry Mead.

“We are still trying to wrap our heads around it now,” said Joe Thornton, the council’s vice chairman.

Thornton said the town is having to handle both the criminal issue of Plummer’s arrest and the personnel issues.

At this point Mead is heading the department, Thornton said.

Town Councilor Michael Tousignant declined to comment except to say that what he knows is very vague.

“I just know that it happened,” said Tousignant.

Plummer has been placed on administrative leave until further notice, Mead said in a written statement.

“I want to reassure the residents of Old Orchard Beach that the public safety needs of the town will continue to be fully served,” Mead said.

He said the department is now under the direction of the command staff.

“They will continue to serve and respond around the clock seven days a week to provide fire and rescue services to the people of Old Orchard Beach,” Mead wrote.

Mead said the town will not comment further on the matter.

Maine Forest Rangers sent out a message on Twitter about the arrest Saturday morning.

“Forest Ranger investigators have been working hard on this case since the day of the fire. Will continue to do so,” the message said.

Alex Carr, chairman of the North Yarmouth Select Board, said he is personally stunned by the arrest of Plummer and questioned why a man who has more than 40 years of experience would set a fire intentionally at this point in his career.

“The stuff you read about firefighters (who intentionally set fires) is that normally they are inexperienced and looking for attention. I certainly hope there is some other explanation,” Carr said.

Carr said Plummer was responsible for changing the North Yarmouth Fire Rescue Department from a volunteer operation to a modern department with trained part-time professionals. He said most of the department members were hired by Plummer, who obtained a $100,000 grant to pay for recruitment and training of new members.

Carr said Plummer left North Yarmouth for Old Orchard Beach to work closer to his family and for what Carr said was a better deal.

Plummer owns a home in Biddeford. McCausland said that Plummer split his time between the Biddeford house and his mother-in-law’s house.

McCausland said the arrest took place at 2 a.m. Saturday because that was when investigators were able to pinpoint Plummer’s location. He said the large number of people involved in the investigation points to the seriousness of the crime.

Plummer and his wife, Liz, have four children and two grandchildren, according to Plummer’s article. His brother, Perry Plummer, is a retired Dover, New Hampshire, fire chief who now heads New Hampshire’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency.