Capt. Josh Johnson of the Gardiner Fire Department, right, and Brandon Melanson, a firefighter and paramedic, check what is left Tuesday of the Laura E. Richards House following a fire Saturday that destroyed the historic landmark at 3 Dennis St. Firefighters say they did not detect lingering hot spots and cordoned off the property with tape. Investigators believe the fire was accidental and caused by a propane generator on the porch, according to the Department of Public Safety. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

GARDINER – A propane generator located on the porch of the historic Laura E. Richards House is thought to have caused the accidental Christmas Eve fire that destroyed the home, according to state officials. 

The homeowners, Sam and Elena Shaw, had their generator running because of a powerful storm that hit Dec. 23 and left them, and thousands of other central Maine residents, without power. In the wake of the incident, local fire officials have emphasized the importance of generator safety in preparation for other storms that could approach in the coming months. 

The Shaws’ dog, Raleigh, alerted the couple to the fire around 7 a.m. Saturday. Both individuals escaped the house with non-life-threatening injuries, but Sam Shaw suffered burns to his hands from trying to put out the fire. The couple’s dog did not survive.

The home, which was not salvageable, has since been knocked down. The Shaws reportedly lost everything except their phones — including their wallets, car keys and clothes — in the fire. A GoFundMe has raised over $80,000 for the family.

When a storm knocks power out, officials said it is important to replace the oil in a generator within 24 hours of the generator running. 

Gardiner Fire Chief Rick Seiberg cautioned that people with generators should ensure they are placed with enough distance from a building, house or porch. The exhaust should be turned away from anything structural, he said. 

Firefighters from six communities attack flames engulfing the entire length of the the Laura E. Richards House at 3 Dennis St. just after 7 a.m. on Saturday. The residence, also called The Yellow House, was erected in 1814 and is the namesake of the Pulitzer Prize winning author Laura Richards. After making entry and searching the two-and-a-half story Federalist-style structure, firefighters assault flames emerging from the interior and shooting through the length of the hip roof. Temperatures were in the single digits as crews from Gardiner, Augusta, West Gardiner, Farmingdale, Pittston and Randolph extinguished the blaze. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

“The biggest thing, I can’t stress enough, is to have a proper hook-up,” Seiberg said. He added that “backfeeding” the generator hook-up can be particularly dangerous and recommends that an electrician install the unit and check on it yearly. 

The Maine Emergency Management Agency also advises that generators should be placed at least 15 feet away from any doors, windows and vents to avoid creating a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The house at 3 Dennis St. was built in 1814 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It formerly belonged to author Laura E. Richards, who moved there in 1876 with her husband, architect Henry Richards. Laura E. Richards was the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize in the biography category and wrote over 90 books in her lifetime.  

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