January 24, 2013

Devastating home fires spur warning in central Maine

Alternative heating appliances are often the culprit.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Linda Agren stood in the door of her home on River Road in New Portland and wiped tears from her eyes as she looked at the ruins of the house across the street.

click image to enlarge

Becky Williams, 40, walks through the iced-over entry way of her Madison Avenue home in Madison after it was destroyed by fire around 3 am Friday. Six area fire departments responded to the blaze, as temperatures reached below zero degrees.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


The National Weather Service is predicting sub-zero and single-digit temperatures for central Maine for the remainder of the week and into early next week.

"There is a lot of cold air banked up across Canada that will reinforce the cold temperatures through Friday, but then they will start to moderate. Next week should be better," said meteorologist Tom Hawley, of the National Weather Service in Gray.

Hawley said that the Northeast and Minnesota are experiencing the coldest temperatures in the country, with the coldest temperature Wednesday being recorded in International Falls, Minn., where it was minus 20.

The warmest spots in the U.S. were Miami and Brownsville, Texas, which both recorded temperatures of 73 degrees Wednesday.

Hawley said that although temperatures will be cold the next few days, no big storms are predicted.

"The next chance of any snow is Friday night or Saturday morning, and that would be about an inch at most. Other than that, there are no big storms predicted for the next five to seven days. It's just cold," he said.

-- Rachel Ohm

A few hours after a chimney fire destroyed the home of her neighbors, Adam and Shellen Masterman, Agren remembered what it was like to lose her own home to fire seven years ago.

"It's sad. I lost my own home when it completely burned, so it was really hard for me to watch. I looked out my window and saw their downstairs living room going," she said.

In the last week, three families in Somerset County have been left homeless because of fires. Also, on Jan. 10 on Augusta, 14 tenants -- including nine adults and five children -- were left homeless after an apartment building caught fire on Sewall Street.

Area firefighters said people need to be cautious as they heat their homes and that fighting fire is more challenging in colder temperatures, so people should be prepared for response times to be a little slower.

Deputy Chief David Groder of the Augusta Fire Department said his department tends to respond to more home fires in the winter. Many of those fires are either directly or indirectly caused by alternatives heating sources, such as wood stoves. He encouraged owners to have their heating systems properly installed and maintained and to regularly clean their chimneys.

He also discouraged burning green wood, which produces less heat and creates more creosote, a flammable tarlike substance that can build up inside chimneys.

"The colder it gets, the more they have to stoke them up," Groder said. "We're just praying nothing happens."

Groder said improper disposal of ashes from wood and pellet stoves also can ignite a fire. He recalled a number of fires over the years caused by people using plastic buckets or even cardboard to hold hot ashes from a wood stove and a regular vacuum cleaner to clean ashes from a pellet stove.

"It should be in a metal container away from the building," Groder said. He said ashes can stay warm enough to spark a fire for a few days.

Madison fire chief Roger Lightbody said no matter what the cause of a fire is, it can be more challenging in colder temperatures.

"It's difficult," Lightbody said. "People need to remember that we're a volunteer fire department. Our guys have to get out of bed, into their cold cars, get to the station and get dressed in their fire gear. In the middle of the night, it could take 10 minutes or upwards just because of the elements."

With temperature forecasts this week in the single digits and below, Lightbody and State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas had advice for people heating their homes as well as firefighters working in the cold.

Thomas said the State Fire Marshal's Office is dealing with three to five fires in the state every day.

"In our area of the country, alternative heating appliances are probably the biggest cause for fires this time of year; and winter is usually when we see the most structure fires," said Thomas.

Alternative heating appliances are anything that isn't actually installed in the home and include wood stoves, space heaters and kerosene heaters, Thomas said.

"As long as they are set up properly, they can be safe; but people need to be sure they are cautious and leave proper clearance around these appliances," he said.

Thomas said a major cause of fires is people leaving easily burned items too close to their heating appliances. He recommends keeping wood, paper and clothing at least 36 inches away from a heat source.

(Continued on page 2)

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