Westbrook Fire Chief Steve Sloan, center, on Monday at the scene of a house fire from the previous day. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Temperatures were in the low 90s Sunday afternoon when fire crews arrived on the scene of a single-family house fire in Westbrook. But for the firefighters tasked with extinguishing the blaze, it was much, much hotter.

Crews were loaded down with heavy equipment and the fire was burning hundreds of degrees higher than the outside air, according to Westbrook Fire Chief Steve Sloan, who compared the experience of fighting the fire in the midsummer heat to running a marathon in five minutes. “It takes an incredible toll,” Sloan said.

Across Maine, the recent heatwave that has generated unusually warm temperatures is causing a headache for fire departments. They’re taking precautions to make sure their crews are well hydrated and that they have enough staff on scene to provide relief, but the weather still poses a major additional challenge for firefighters already working in dangerous conditions.

“It does make it a lot more difficult to fight fires because the firefighters get exhausted a lot sooner,” said Michael Scott, secretary for the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, an organization that advocates for current and retired firefighters and fire department staff throughout the state. “We need to have a lot more people on the calls to get the same amount of work done.”


Firefighters typically can work for 15 to 30 minutes at a time on a low-temperature, low-humidity day, according to Sloan. But in warmer conditions like what much of the state saw this past weekend, crews need to rotate out every five to 10 minutes, he said.


“They just get dehydrated really quick and their internal body temperature goes really high, so we have to do our due diligence to make sure we have enough people on site to rotate, so they have a good half an hour to cool down after they come out of the building,” Sloan said. “In five to 10 minutes, you can get completely gassed.”

Sloan encourages his firefighters to stay hydrated and rest on hot, humid days.

“Some people think, ‘Oh firefighters, they’re just sitting around in air conditioning all day,'” Sloan said. “That may be true. However, everybody else sitting around in an office in air conditioning all day is not going to be called into a 600-degree building and expected to perform at their best. So we really encourage downtime during these hot days.”

The Portland Fire Department takes a similar approach. “It certainly is more physically stressful on our people,” said Sean Donaghue, the department’s division chief for emergency medical services and training.

He said overexertion, dehydration and hyperthermia, or high body temperatures, are all concerns for firefighters in warm weather.

“It’s mostly about drinking a lot of water and trying to stay cool when you can,” Donaghue said. “Any sort of incident that occurs, you probably think about having more people respond so people can take breaks and get cool in their truck with the air conditioning running.”


Heat waves can also bring an uptick in medical calls for people who have worked too hard, and become overheated and dehydrated, calls that the department’s firefighters, most of whom are trained in emergency medicine, could have to respond to, Donaghue said.

“When you’re going to have a heat wave, you always see reminders to check in on the elderly and make sure they can stay cool and if not try to take care of them,” he said. “If you have a medical condition and don’t have air conditioning, that can be exacerbated in this heat. … It’s really no less taxing on the medical side than it is on the fire side. It’s taxing for the whole system.”


The Portland area has seen temperatures over the last five to six days ranging from the mid-80s to low 90s – and while no records have been set, high temperatures have been five to 10 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service in Gray.

“We usually cool off at night where we can get some relief, but we haven’t really seen that lately,” said Jerry Combs, a meteorologist for the weather service.

Scott, of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, said he wasn’t aware of any heat-related injuries to the state’s firefighters within the last week, but he said it’s a worry. “There’s definitely increased risk for heat exhaustion or cardiac issues that get brought out because of the increased body temperature,” said Scott, who also serves as a captain for the Auburn Fire Department.


In Biddeford, Fire Chief Scott Gagne said some firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion Saturday after battling a fire at a home on Sevigny Avenue, though there were no serious injuries. The house fire, which required significant work to extinguish, followed an earlier brush fire in Dayton that Biddeford crews also responded to.

“Most of the crews didn’t get much break,” Gagne said. “They went right from a woods fire to a structure fire, and the heat just makes things much more difficult. It’s much more taxing on resources. Those that are working need a longer break in between going back to work and air bottle change-outs. It’s impactful. … It takes almost double the crews to get the task done.”

Increased heat can also foster irritability, agitation and mood swings – both in firefighters and first responders and the people they come to help, said Amy Davenport Dakin, who oversees the behavioral health program for the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine and who owns and operates Augusta-based New Perceptions, which provides behavioral health treatment to first responders.

She said it’s normal for physical stressors like heat to result in changes in mood or mental health outlook, and she recommends that first responders practice mindfulness and grounding exercises, that they get outside (near the water or in cooler temperatures) and that they make time to relax. “I would also say, don’t hesitate to reach out to people, to reach out to peers and providers to talk,” she said.


The heat wave is expected to subside after a cold front moved through Maine late Monday, according to Combs of the weather service. “After the cold front passes, we will get a break for a few days and it will be drier,” he said.


The high Tuesday is expected to be in the low to mid-80s, and lower humidity should feel more comfortable. Tuesday night should also be cooler, in the upper 50s. “So that will all be very welcome,” Combs said.

Regardless, firefighters around Maine will be heading to work.

“The fire still needs to be fought, so we’re going to get the job done no matter what,” Scott said. “Sometimes it puts us at higher risk, but ultimately our main goal and our purpose is to make sure we save lives and protect property.”

In Westbrook, Sloan said Saturday’s fire will be ruled accidental and that there are “a bunch of potential causes.”

Marland Wing, who owns the home at 44 Puritan Drive and whose daughter and three grandchildren lived there, said firefighters and the state Fire Marshal’s Office hadn’t said what caused the fire, but they believe it may have been electrical or related to a gas grill behind the house.

Wing said Monday that his family is waiting for an insurance adjuster to evaluate the damage, but they “pretty much lost everything.” They also haven’t been able to locate their two cats, Puma and Simba.

Still, he said he was grateful for the work of the firefighters in the intense heat. “That sun, it was brutal. And they had all that equipment on,” he said. “It must have been brutal, but they did a good job.”

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