WINTHROP — When a Maranacook Lake camp caught fire in January, the Winthrop Fire Department was already convened at the fire station for a meeting. Readied staff and a quick response time could have led to better scenario.

But the camp was still lost to fire.

“The best we could do was save the house beside it,” said Winthrop Fire Chief Dan Brooks, recalling the difficulty of access to the rural property.

Brooks went before the Winthrop Planning Board last week to express his concerns with his department’s ability to provide effective fire protection in rural areas of town. He asked the board to consider a sprinkler ordinance that would make it mandatory to install sprinklers in new, residential subdivisions — a housing area of three or more homes or a multi-dwelling complex.

If such an ordinance is adopted, it would not affect existing properties, only new buildings. The town of Winthrop does not have any ordinances for sprinklers, only laws mandated by the state, which usually affect commercial buildings.  

“It’s about life safety,” said Deputy Fire Chief Mark Arsenault, who is also the code enforcement officer for the town.

“It’s an idea that we have not faced before,” said Rick O’Brien, planning board chair. “It’s clearly something that requires a clear examination. We’ll give it our attention.”

Winthrop wouldn’t be the first Maine town to discuss and even develop such an ordinance. Rockland and Gorham are two towns that developed their own ordinances.

“As time goes on, it’s going to be the new norm,” Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock said. “The safety aspect is proven.”

Rockland’s ordinance was developed around a decade ago, and now about 40 to 50 homes have sprinkler systems installed, he said. It affects any new one- or two-family dwellings. It also affects existing buildings renovated into housing.

The town offers an exemption, Whytock said, if a house is less than 1,500 square feet, has a stable water source within 1,000 feet and is constructed with approved building materials. But before taking the exemption, the owner must speak with the fire chiefs about the benefits of home sprinklers.

“(After talking,) we have had a few people decide to go ahead with the project and have them installed,” Whytock said.

Rockland has seen a mix of response from its residents.

“Some don’t want a government to tell them what to do in their own homes,” Whytock said.

Mark Patterson, president of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Maine, worries what such a requirement would mean for families purchasing and building new homes.

“We want people to have the choice. That’s the cost of a new bathroom,” he said. “Increasing price of homes has a big impact on affordability.

“I can’t even get them to buy a remote smoke alarm system,” Patterson added, noting such a system costs around $700-800. “Sprinklers aren’t even on their radar.”

According to the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, the national average for the cost of a sprinkler system is $1.35 per square foot of the house. That cost is dependent on the location of the home and how elaborate the home is, said Gerry Leach, a public safety inspector for the Maine Fire Marshal’s office.

In the northeast, he said, that cost is usually higher. One reason is that the systems should be installed so there is no danger of the water freezing. In addition, residences with well water would see an added expense of having a holding tank to store the water and a pump to have enough pressure.

Brooks guessed it took at least 50,000 gallons to extinguish the Maranacook Lake camp’s fire — the department can only transport 2,250 gallons on its four trucks. For that blaze, it required assistance from Monmouth Fire Department, which has a 2,000-gallon tanker truck, and Lakes Region Mutual Aid Group.

“It took 30 minutes before we could get a pump in the lake,” Brooks said. “A sprinkler would have put that out before we even arrived.”

The Winthrop Fire department is volunteer-based. There are 28 members right now, but rarely does the department have the strength of its whole department on a scene.

“We struggle to get large resources,” Brooks said. “Sometimes, we only get four firemen.”

In the last two months, two Winthrop houses have burned to the ground, but one business was saved when a fire broke out in the boiler room. National Filter Media employees didn’t even know that there had been a fire, Arsenault said.

“You don’t need anyone to show up for a sprinkler,” Brooks said.

The National Fire Protection Association has adopted sprinklers into the national fire code, but Maine legislation removed sprinklers from its code.

Patterson said sprinklers don’t increase the value of the home or make much of a difference in insurance costs.

“My house burned down,” Patterson said. “I rebuilt my house; I did not put sprinklers in.”

Winthrop has the record for the highest number of deaths in a house fire, Brooks said. In 1960, a widow and five of her children died in the fire. They lived in a two-story, five-room home on the outskirts of town. It’s an experience Brooks fears to have repeated.

“It’s what I was hoping for, to start a dialogue,” Brooks said, following his conversation with the planning board. “I think at least they understand my concerns, and I think they’re open to what can we do about those concerns.

“They also have concerns for the citizens, what’s the effect to the town,” he added. “I have those, too.”

The Thompson family, who owned the camp on Maranacook Lake, requested to rebuild their home at Wednesday’s planning board meeting . The request was accepted.


Abigail Austin — 621-5631
[email protected]
Twitter: @AbigailAustinKJ

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