OLD ORCHARD BEACH — A freight train shooting sparks as it passed ignited a string of brush fires Thursday that covered more than three miles from Scarborough to Biddeford, destroying at least 10 seasonal trailers in Old Orchard Beach and forcing the evacuation of scores of homes.
Old Orchard Beach was hit hardest. Fire Chief John Glass struck five alarms, drawing in 75 firefighters from 20 communities, some as far away as York.
Residents also fought flames themselves, dousing small fires burning in dead, dry vegetation.
Brush fires lined the western side of the tracks. Fire that raged at the Wagon Wheel RV Resort and Campground on Old Orchard Road threw off smoke that was seen from miles away. Some of the trailers in the campground, packed close together near the tracks, caught fire and their propane tanks exploded.
“Once one or two of the tanks exploded, that started to spread the fire,” Glass said.
He said 10 trailers were destroyed and six were moderately damaged. He believes the trailers were unoccupied and no residents were hurt. Several firefighters were treated for exhaustion, he said.
Glass said witnesses reported seeing sparks coming from the bottom of a freight train. He did not know if the brakes were locked or whether there was any other malfunction.
Railroad officials said a freight train was stopped near Portland and investigators were working to determine whether it was connected to the fires.
Brush fires sparked by trains aren’t uncommon, but they are usually small grass fires in one or two places, Glass said, not spanning entire towns. “This is the first time we’ve ever had this extreme,” he said.
Kent Nelson, a forest ranger specialist with the Maine Forest Service, said fires can be caused by trains because of factors ranging from brake malfunctions to carbon buildup in a locomotive’s engine.
Nelson said his department regularly inspects locomotives to ensure they are equipped with exhaust spark arrestors, and also works to keep tracks clear of vegetation.
If there is a malfunction, a train can leave a trail of hot embers that can extend for several hundred feet. “If the conditions are right, you have a recipe for a wildfire,” he said.
Southern Maine was under a high fire danger warning Thursday.
The forest service dispatched a helicopter that scooped 250-gallon buckets of water from a pond on the nearby Biddeford-Saco Country Club, then dropped the water repeatedly on the fires in the campground and other areas that were inaccessible to fire trucks.
Firefighters said all of the fires were extinguished by 7:40 p.m., but a couple of spots flared up again around 9 p.m. Those flareups were quickly brought under control, and there had been no additional reports of fires by 11 p.m.
‘THERE WAS SO MUCH SMOKE’
Tiffani Robichaud, who lives in one of the Olde Salt Village condominiums, alongside the tracks in Old Orchard Beach, said, “There was just smoke and huge flames coming up on the side of the fence, flames like I’ve never seen before.
“It was all dark, there was so much smoke,” she said, then all of the people in the units near the fire were told to leave.
Bill Sutton, who lives on the south end of the neighboring Wagon Wheel campground, was in his yard as the freight train passed. He said it was an engine pulling 12 to 15 oil tanker cars and a couple of flatbeds.
“I was walking out back of the camper and saw different hot spots. I got my garden hose,” he said, spraying several areas where brush was catching fire and threatening to burn the wooden stockade fence separating the campground from the tracks. He thinks that may have saved his home.
“Once it hit the fence, it would have got the camper,” he said.
Firefighters arrived, took over his garden hose and told him to leave because the campground was being evacuated.
The campground has about 200 sites, most of which are occupied by summer residents. It is open from May to October, so most residents have not arrived yet. Sutton arrived from Florida a week ago.
The fire burned through the campground in part because it has no hydrants. Firefighters had to use water loaded onto trucks. Eventually, they extended a line from a hydrant on Old Salt Road, over a gully and through a chain-link fence to boost the water supply.
RESIDENTS TRY TO PUT OUT FLAMES
The first reports of fire came in about 1:20 p.m., in the Temple Lane area and at the campground, Glass said.
Bob Kelly and Lori Gramlich discovered a fire across the street from their house on Temple Lane.
They attacked that fire themselves, with Kelly pushing it back with a rake and Gramlich batting it down with a flat shovel, knocking down a line of flames about 100 to 150 feet long, Kelly said.
“It was scary,” Gramlich said. “The wind shifted and the fire came back toward us. I had to get out of there. I was having a hard time breathing.”
David Nappi was sitting outside his condominium at Olde Salt Village at 1:20 p.m. when he saw the train pass and, moments later, smoke wafting from the trails where he walks his dachshund.
He was the first caller to report the fire to 911, he said, and was kept on the phone for what seemed like minutes as he was transferred to the right agency.
“By then, the woods are burning,” he said. The fire destroyed a shed where he had his snowblower and bicycle stored.
Glass said the fire was more than Old Orchard Beach’s fire department could control on its own because it covered such a large area and because the department relies on volunteer firefighters, many of whom were at their regular jobs.
“A lot of citizens joined in to try to help out,” he said.
FIRES IGNITE NEAR SACO SCHOOL
Capt. Chris West of the Saco Fire Department said the brush fires broke out near an elementary school in his city and spread rapidly. West and other fire officials suspect the fire was caused by a locomotive that was pulling a freight train.
He said a Saco firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation but did not have to be taken to a hospital.
An elderly Saco man who tried to put out a fire in his yard with a garden hose was taken to a local hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, West said.
“I was struck by the sheer volume of the fire and the distance that it covered,” he said Thursday night.
The Maine Forest Service and some fire departments responded with all-terrain vehicles that could travel along the railroad tracks carrying small loads of water, dousing small fires.
Robert Kirby said he arrived at his car restoration and sales business, Aces Auto, on Old Salt Road in Old Orchard Beach about 1:50 p.m.
“There was fire all the way across the back fence,” he said, gesturing toward the chain-link fence separating his property from the campground.
Kirby said he was concerned that the fire would spread to his business and the antique cars kept there. Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, said an Amtrak Downeaster train passed through Old Orchard Beach around 1 p.m., but was not connected to the fires.
Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president of Pan Am Railways, which owns the tracks, said a single locomotive was following the Downeaster and was stopped near Portland. She said officials were on their way to investigate the train to determine whether it sparked the fires.
Staff Writers Gillian Graham and Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: