April 23, 2013

Brush fire in Clinton burns more than 5 acres

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

CLINTON — A man who was burning brush on his Canaan Road property escaped unharmed after the fire got out of control about 1 p.m. Monday and consumed 5.4-acres of dead grass before emergency responders put it out.

click image to enlarge

Randy Caswell, a volunteer firefighter with the Clinton Fire Department, sprays down the origin of a 5.4 acre grass fire at 434 Canaan Road in Clinton on Monday.

Staff photo/Michael G. Seamans

The man, Paul Lessard, a trim 62-year-old wearing a cowboy hat and buttoned shirt who speaks in a French-Canadian accent, described the moment when he knew he was in trouble.

"The wind twist, like that," he said, twirling his finger in the air to describe a sudden shift in direction, "and push it that way."

Lessard said he tried to use his hose to contain the flames, and then switched to a shovel in an attempt to smother it with dirt, but nothing worked.

"I get so hot, my face, I give up," he said.

Lessard called 911 as the fire, bolstered by the strong breeze, swept away from the road and toward a timberline, beyond which lay a vehicle used in logging known as a skidder.

When members of the Clinton Fire Department first arrived at the scene 10 minutes later, they were worried their firetruck could get bogged down in the muddy field, so they parked on the roadside and used a 200-foot-long hose to combat the flames, Lt. Mark Bellaire said.

A helicopter was called in from a ranger station in Augusta, but turned back when it became clear that the situation was under control, Bellaire said.

"We got lucky," he said, because the wind directed the fire into a very wet area, including a bog, which helped to contain it until firefighters were able to fully douse it.

The fire spread over more than 5 acres within 15 minutes, Lessard estimated.

Lessard, who works in home renovations, said he had successfully burned brush several times in the past but the wind caught him by surprise.

"The wind makes it impossible," he said.

Lessard and his animals, which include horses, a donkey and a pig, were unharmed by the blaze.

Lessard was cited for burning without a permit, Maine Forest Ranger Bill Cusick said at the scene.

Greg Hesslein, a district manager with the Maine Forest Service, said burning without a permit is a class E crime, which can carry a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Hesslein said a wide range of penalties can be imposed by the judge, and that most offenses draw fines of $200 or less, with aggravating circumstances resulting in higher fines.

Cusick said people should be particularly careful to get a permit and observe safety precautions in the spring. Grass fires are more common then, he said, as the "fine fuel" of dead grass and twigs in fields begins to dry out.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

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