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.

It is also smart to keep wood chimneys clean and free of creosote. Thomas recommends getting chimneys cleaned over the summer as preparation going into the heating season.

"Buildup accumulates over the heating season, so it's good to know its been cleaned and maintained going into the next season," he said.

Finally, both Thomas and Lightbody advised home owners to make sure working smoke detectors are installed in their homes.

With the proper maintenance and attention to keeping the area around a heater clean and free of combustibles, Thomas said, fires can be avoided, although he does also have advice for fire safety if one should break out.

"People need to plan on how they will escape their home. One thing we see in the winter is that people don't clean their doorways. They have a front and a back door, but they only shovel one. There might be a fire, but they can't get out the front door because its blocked by snow," he said.

It is also a good idea to have an escape route and a meeting place outside the home where everyone can meet once they are safely out, he said.

In the New Portland fire, Mikey Raley said her 8-year-old granddaughter was saved because she remembered a fire safety lesson she had been taught in school.

"She knew to get out of the house and meet her family outside, away from the fire," she said.

As for firefighters, they face challenges getting to the fire as well as risks associated with being inside it when the weather is bad, Lightbody said.

"If a volunteer's car is covered in snow and the roads are slippery, it's definitely a challenge," he said.

There is also the problem of the equipment on firetrucks freezing and firefighters' gear and gloves getting wet and freezing, he said.

"It's very difficult to keep our guys safe and warm. They can get in the trucks and we always have an ambulance on scene," he said.

Lightbody said firefighters also need to drink plenty of fluids in the winter because their bodies still get dehydrated inside burning structures, where the temperature might be as high as 1,000 degrees.

"It's definitely hard on the body, going in and out from those hot to cold temperatures," he said.

Staff writer Craig Crosby contributed to this report.

Rachel Ohm -- 612-2368


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