Back-to-back house fires in Greater Portland on Monday came on the heels of a weekend during which Portland firefighters responded to a series of intentionally set dumpster fires.

A fire Monday morning destroyed a Falmouth home that a family had planned to move into at the end of the week. A few hours later, Portland firefighters were called to 38 Columbia Road, where a fire burned through a 2½-story house.

On Sunday, firefighters extinguished a trash fire that scorched the bricks at the back of the Portland Museum of Art at 99 Spring St.

Police responding to the 9 p.m. fire spotted Robert Johnson, 19, at the corner of Congress and Center streets. Johnson lists his address as 203 Oxford St., the city’s emergency shelter.

Police and firefighters were being extra vigilant after a series of eight dumpster fires – including one at the rear of a wooden apartment building – were set Saturday night and Sunday morning on the Portland peninsula.

When a person reported seeing someone setting a fire behind the museum, officers flooded the area and were able to apprehend Johnson. Police would not say how they identified Johnson.


Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, speaking Monday during a news conference at City Hall, would not say specifically that Johnson is suspected in the other fires, but it’s clear police are investigating that possibility. Police did not release Johnson’s photograph in case police need to show a photo lineup to potential witnesses, he said.

Johnson is charged with the highest form of arson because of the potential damage to property and people, Sauschuck said.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said arson fires are a serious crime not only because they pose an immediate danger to people and buildings nearby, but they also tie up firefighters who might be needed elsewhere.

“On Saturday night, we experienced a string of fires which did tie up resources,” he said, referring to the fires on the peninsula. “That leaves a large area (of the city) unprotected.”

Johnson, who is being held on $10,000 bail at the Cumberland County Jail, declined a request from the Portland Press Herald for an interview. Nobody was injured in any of the fires.

The first fire was reported at 11:03 p.m. Saturday in a trash bin at 92 Forest Ave. The second fire was reported at 11:13 p.m. Saturday in a dumpster at 39 Forest Ave. Police and fire departments investigated another six fires set in dumpsters or trash bins on Danforth, Commercial, Congress and Center streets between 12:21 a.m. and 2:11 a.m. Sunday.


The house fire at 169 Foreside Road in Falmouth was reported by a newspaper delivery person at 5 a.m. Monday

Fire Chief Howard Rice Jr. said firefighters arrived to find heavy fire in the middle of the 1850 farmhouse coming out through the roof.

Firefighters started to attack the fire inside the building, but it burned through the floor and stairwell, making it too dangerous for them to stay inside, he said.

Firefighters worked through the morning trying to keep the fire from spreading to the small attached barn and an addition on the back of the house.

“Unfortunately, they just get a good head start on you,” Rice said. “We’re not sure how long it was burning” before it was discovered.

The fire damaged the attic of the barn but firefighters were able to stop it from burning the rest of the structure. They also kept it from reaching the more modern addition.


The house recently had been sold and workers were doing some last-minute renovations Sunday night. Michelle Sheldon, who said she and her family were going to move in at the end of the week, said crews were redoing the floors Sunday night and her husband was painting.

Foreside Road was shut down from 5 a.m. to noon, and morning school buses were rerouted around the scene. No one was injured in the blaze.

Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office were trying to determine the cause but had not reached a conclusion Monday, said Sgt. Joel Davis. He said parts of the building had collapsed onto the floor, and they planned to wait for the insurance company to conduct an investigation after moving some of the debris.

The property was valued for tax purposes at $847,000, $486,000 of which was the building.

Portland sent one engine to the Falmouth fire, but then had to respond to another fire inside the city at 9 a.m. Monday.

A three-alarm blaze at 38 Columbia Road off Brighton Avenue destroyed the inside of a house. The one person who was home at the time got out safely.


Neighbors reported seeing smoke coming from the 2½-story house and firefighters arrived to find heavy fire on the first floor, said LaMoria.

With one engine in Falmouth, LaMoria ordered a third alarm, drawing all firefighters on duty to fight the Columbia Road fire, he said. Forty-eight firefighters were at the scene and neighboring communities covered the city’s stations, he said.

Nobody was injured in the fire.

A fire department investigation team is determining the cause and extent of damage. The property was valued at $211,000, $130,000 of which is the building.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

Twitter: @Mainehenchman

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