The Maine Forest Service said Monday that it has nearly completed its investigation into the brush fires that burned hundreds of discarded railroad ties, threatened dozens of homes and destroyed part of a campground in Old Orchard Beach last week.
Meanwhile, a damage assessment by the Old Orchard Beach Fire Department has determined that the fires caused nearly a quarter-million dollars in damage to the Wagon Wheel RV Resort and Campground in Old Orchard Beach.
A spokesman for the forest service said a statement will be issued this week to explain the cause of the fires and name the responsible party or parties.
Witnesses told authorities they saw sparks shooting from a freight train that passed though Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Biddeford on Thursday afternoon. Amtrak’s Downeaster, a passenger train, passed through the area just a few minutes before the freight train.
Officials have confirmed that the freight train is owned by Pan Am Railways, which also owns the track.
The brush fires covered more than three miles along the railroad tracks. Fire spread to the campground, destroying 10 seasonal trailers and damaging seven others. Propane tanks were also ignited.
No one was injured, but nearby homes had to be evacuated and 75 firefighters from 20 communities responded to the fires.
On Monday, John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Forest Service, said, “We are getting very close to wrapping up the investigation and determining the cause of the fire.”
Bott said the forest service and other agencies want to make sure they have addressed all issues – including who, if anyone, is responsible for paying restitution – before they release a statement.
“We’re very confident in the cause but we are still putting all the pieces together. It hasn’t been easy,” said Greg Hesslein, a forest ranger who has been involved in the investigation.
Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano could not be reached Monday, but she told the Portland Press Herald last week that her company could find no evidence that one of its freight trains sparked the fires.
She said the engines’ exhaust was clean and the brakes showed no signs of a malfunction.
The New England Passenger Rail Authority said it could find no evidence that the Downeaster train malfunctioned and caused the fires.
Old Orchard Beach Fire Chief John Glass said he has heard that the state is still examining mechanical reports – conducted on the Amtrak engine and the freight train engine Thursday – to determine whether a mechanical malfunction sparked the fires.
Glass said the Pan Am Railways train was stopped and inspected in Dover, New Hampshire, while the Amtrak train was inspected at Boston’s North Station.
Glass said Capt. Brett Jones from the Old Orchard Beach Fire Department has determined that the campground and trailer owners sustained a property loss of about $243,000. With those estimates, owners can now file claims with their insurance companies.
Glass said he would not be surprised if the total cost of the property damage from the fires reached $500,000. He said the damage varied, from property owners who lost a fence to one whose shed was destroyed. That person also lost a lawnmower and a snowblower that were stored in a shed.
Restitution may also have to be paid to the Old Orchard Beach Fire Department. Glass said that if a responsible party is named, the town could seek compensation for the time and resources it had to spend fighting the fires.
Glass said most people he has spoken with are grateful that the fires were contained within a few hours.
“It could have been a major disaster. I have never seen anything of this scope and magnitude before,” Glass said.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: