The fire March 1 at a Berwick apartment building that killed Berwick fire Capt. Joel Barnes was sparked by improperly discarded smoking materials, the state fire marshal said Friday.

Berwick Fire Capt. Joel Barnes Photo courtesy of the Barnes family

The determination comes after a monthlong investigation by the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office, which cooperated with investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Berwick Police Department.

Barnes, 32, died after he became trapped in a third-floor room. The cause of his death was listed as hyperthermia, a fatally elevated core body temperature, Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said. The manner of death was accidental.

Investigators were unable to conclusively determine who discarded the cigarette or smoking item that caused the blaze at 10 Bell St., and no charges are expected, Thomas said. They also could not determine the exact type of smoking material discarded or what type of receptacle it had been placed in.

“We assume somebody was out there smoking at some point in time,” Thomas said. “It certainly is fitting of the circumstances showing what cause and origin was.”

The Maine Department of Labor is conducting an independent investigation involving equipment and labor safety standards, the fire marshal’s office said. The ATF Fire Research Laboratory also is working with data to generate a computer model of the fire.

The cause-and-origin determination comports with video footage taken by neighbors shortly after the fire began showing intense flames from the rear porch of the top level of the three-floor, six-unit building.

Barnes and firefighter Mitchell Manfredi entered the building through the front door and moved to a third-floor room adjacent to the rear porch. Once they were in that room, they could not exit to the porch because of the volume of fire. Conditions were rapidly deteriorating, making an escape back through their original entry point impossible, the fire marshal’s office said.

Barnes was found unconscious in that third-floor room, investigators said.

Barnes’ father said his son died after throwing himself on top of Manfredi to shield him from the heat and flames. Manfredi survived.

Barnes and Manfredi had to be pulled from the building. Three other firefighters who entered the building with them managed to escape on their own. None of the residents was injured. Barnes, Manfredi and the three other firefighters entered the building primarily to make sure all the tenants got out.

A somber crowd of 2,500 firefighters, relatives, friends and other community members gathered on March 10 at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland to honor Barnes, believed to be the first Maine firefighter to have died in a fire in nearly four decades.

Barnes, who lived in Shapleigh, grew up in Old Orchard Beach. At his funeral last month, an uncle said Barnes had dreamed of being a firefighter since he was a toddler. The uncle, also named Joel Barnes, said his nephew would wear a plastic firefighter helmet and, when he heard a siren, would run to the end of the driveway to watch for firetrucks.

Barnes’ family said he was laser-focused on his career in firefighting from the age of 10, when he began poring over textbooks about science and medicine.

“At a very young age he would start reading about all these medical books,” Michael Barnes said of his son. “At the time he was probably about 10. He took an interest. He wanted to be a firefighter and a paramedic, and he never wavered from it.”

After Barnes joined the Berwick Fire Department, he loved to show his young nephew around the station and teach fire safety classes in local schools. Barnes also was known for the meticulous care he gave the department’s equipment, often wiping away water spots after the trucks were washed.

“He is a hero,” Berwick Fire Chief Dennis Plante said at Barnes’ funeral. “He is my hero. He will be greatly missed by all the fire service brothers and sisters, and may he rest in peace.”

 

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