Some residents expected to return to their homes in an elderly housing complex in Westbrook Friday afternoon after being evacuated because of a fire early Friday morning.

Firefighters responded to the fire at Riverview Terrace, a public and elderly housing project, on Knight Street just after 2 a.m. Friday.

The fire was caused by a 57-year-old woman smoking too close to her oxygen tank, according to Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office. The woman was visiting her 37-year-old daughter who lives in the complex.

Although several units were damaged as a result of the fire, firefighters managed to contain the fire to the one unit.

“It’s a success story,” said State Fire Marshal John Dean, who visited the site Friday afternoon.

Westbrook Fire Chief Gary Littlefield said about 60 residents were evacuated within an hour of the start of the fire. They were transported by bus to Larrabee Village on Liza Harmon Drive in Westbrook. Six residents were hospitalized for minor smoke inhalation, but are expected to recover, said Grimes.

The building sustained smoke damage to the second floor and water damage to the first and second floor. Littlefield said he expects residents who live in the wing where the fire started will be able to move back in within a few days.

Dean said he was impressed with the work of the Westbrook fire department.

“This is a very difficult task,” he said about evacuating the many elderly and disabled residents.

Westbrook received assistance from Portland, Scarborough, Falmouth, Windham, Gorham and Cape Elizabeth fire departments. At least 12 ambulances and 50 firefighters reported to the scene.

Dean said the incident was not just an example of an efficient fire department but also of the importance of keeping buildings up to code and maintaining smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. He said the Sheetrock in the ceilings kept the fire contained to one unit.

Dean said it also provided an opportunity to talk about the hazards of smoking while hooked up to an oxygen tank.

“People have to understand it’s a very dangerous practice,” he said. According to Dean, there have been four deaths in the past four years in Maine in fires that were caused by oxygen tanks ignited while someone was smoking – and that person is usually the one hooked to the tank.

Dean said if people on oxygen cannot quit smoking, they need to do it outside. Inside, the tank creates an “oxygen-enriched atmosphere,” which he said makes it more likely for a fire to start and intensifies the blaze.

“Somewhere along the line, people need to take responsibility for their actions,” he said.

Everything in a Westbrook apartment where a fire began early Friday morning sustained severe damage, including this phone. However, firefighters contained the blaze in the apartment because the building was kept up to code.


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