A rash of serious fires coming in a nine-day period during which more than 3 feet of snow was dumped by repeated storms and temperatures plummeted to subzero left dozens of central Mainers without their homes and some without their livelihoods.

The fires took the lives of animals, destroyed property and tested the endurance of local firefighters battling not just flames but also frozen hoses and deep snow.

Fire officials said winter typically brings a spike in fires as people crank up whatever heating source they can to stay warm, but the recent central Maine run, in which at least 10 serious fires burned homes, barns or apartment complexes over nine days, is unprecedented and without a clear cause.

“There has been a rash of them lately. I’ve been here 22 years and (a firefighter in) central Maine for 28 years, and I don’t ever remember this many fires coming in a 10-day period,” said Roger Audette, fire chief in Augusta, where two fires Jan. 30 and 31 destroyed a mobile home and heavily damaged a Green Street home. “I can’t pinpoint why the number of fires is up. The last several fires, the causes in a lot of them were accidental, and in some it couldn’t be determined. Some years, there are just unfortunate circumstances.”

While the causes of the fires varied, or in many cases could not be determined, they presented similar, significant challenges to firefighters – deep snow that made moving, let alone moving while toting a wet, heavy fire hose, airpack and other gear weighing them down, difficult at best. Cold temperatures caused hoses and the pumps of firetrucks to freeze up and become inoperable and useless until they were thawed out.

Firefighters, most of them volunteers with other, regular jobs, were already tired from all the snow shoveling, blowing and plowing the recent major storms have forced upon them and other area residents.

“The guys get worn out. Fatigue was definitely a factor, especially with the Fenderson fire, which came after most of us had already been out for the other three fires, then had this huge fire,” said Whitefield Fire Chief Scott Higgins, referencing a Feb. 3 fire that destroyed the Hilton Road home and barn of Pam and Mark Fenderson and their children, Olivia and Adam.

For many of the firefighters, the fire at the Fendersons’ farmhouse was the fourth they responded to in six days in their own towns or through mutual aid agreements. They also heeded the call to help fight a Feb. 2 fire that destroyed an unoccupied Jefferson home, a Feb. 1 fire that destroyed the Somerville home and barn of Scott and Missy Peaslee and their young son and killed several farm animals, and a Jan. 27 blaze in Whitefield that left the 10 members of the Rideout family homeless.

“I’ve never seen this many structure fires in such a short span,” said Higgins, a 36-year firefighter. “And it’s not just us. We’ve had them all around us throughout the state.”

Higgins said temperatures have been so cold at some of the fires the pumps of firetrucks froze up when water wasn’t moving through them constantly. Fire hoses, too, can freeze if the water in them sits still for too long.

The only way to thaw them, Higgins said, is to get them somewhere warm, such as back at the fire station, and wait for them to thaw out.

‘WORST NIGHTMARE’

Trucks and hoses freezing up was a problem, too, at a Feb. 2 fire that destroyed a barn and killed about 30 cows at the Sherburne farm in Dexter, which Jason and Heather Bowden bought in November and where they had only recently started up a dairy operation.

Dexter Fire Chief Matt Connor said several firetrucks froze up during the eight hours they fought the fire and had to be brought back to the fire station. One disabled truck had to be towed to the town garage so it could thaw out and be used again.

Connor said it was difficult to get enough firefighters to help at the daytime fire, so they reached out to fire departments from 12 area communities spread over three counties to help.

“We just didn’t have enough personnel on scene to be able to shuttle people through so they could keep warm,” Connor said. “A lot of the guys burned out. In my whole career, we’ve never even called some of the fire departments” that helped at the blaze.

The same conditions that made fighting the fires hard also further burdened the families burned out as they tried to recover.

Ted Rideout had to flee the Jan. 27 Whitefield fire with nine other family members, including an infant and other young children, that destroyed their Mills Road home while a blizzard dumped snow on them and firefighters. He said he hasn’t been back to the fire scene many times, because there isn’t much of anything left to salvage there, and what is left is under 3 feet of snow. He said his insurance company has advised them they’ll get about $35,000 – the contents of the home were insured, but not the home itself –which he said they’ll use to help build a new home on the property with the help of volunteers.

“As soon as weather permits, in the spring, we’re going back, cleaning things up and we’re going to try to rebuild,” Rideout said.

He said all 10 family members had found places to live, at least temporarily, with other family members or friends. He and his wife, Sarah, are staying with a son in Randolph.

All things considered, he said the family is doing okay.

“It’s the worst nightmare I’ve ever gone through, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” Rideout said. “Thank God everyone made it out alive. That’s the main thing, the people.”

The fire was started by one of the boys in the home who was burning the end of a rope to make a dog leash. When left unattended, it ignited nearby combustible material, according to Sgt. Kenneth Grimes of the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

COLD AND DIFFICULT

The latest local fire impacted the most people. A fire Wednesday night heavily damaged half of a 28-unit senior apartment building on Highland Avenue in Gardiner, displacing more than 30 residents. A representative of the company that owns the complex, C.B. Mattson, said the company was helping some residents find housing in other properties it owns, while other residents stayed with family or were put up in hotels by the American Red Cross.

A cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

The Gardiner fire is among many the Office of the State Fire Marshal is investigating to determine a cause.

State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said hard data is not yet available, but there does seem to have been an increase in the number of fires for which they were asked to determine a cause so far this winter. He said in December the agency’s investigators had at least one fire a day to investigate, which he said is more than usual.

He said the workload of the 14 investigators is stretched thin by having to visit so many fire scenes. That, in turn, makes it harder for them to do the more in-depth work of working on arson cases.

He said there tends to be more fires in the winter because people are using alternative heating sources to stay warm.