Capt. Josh Johnson of the Gardiner Fire Department, right, and Brandon Melanson, a firefighter, and paramedic check what is left Tuesday of the Laura E. Richards House following a fire Saturday that destroyed the historic landmark at 3 Dennis St. Firefighters say they did not detect lingering hot spots and cordoned off the property with tape. Investigators believe the fire was accidental and caused by a propane generator on the porch, according to the Department of Public Safety. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

GARDINER – A propane generator on the porch of the historic Laura E. Richards House is believed to have caused the accidental Christmas Eve fire that destroyed the home, according to state officials.

The homeowners, Sam and Elena Saw, had their generator running because of a powerful storm that hit Dec. 23 and left them, and thousands of other Maine residents, without power. In the wake of the incident, local fire officials have emphasized the importance of generator safety in preparation for other storms in the coming months.

The Shaws’ dog, Raleigh, alerted the couple to the fire around 7 a.m. Saturday. The couple escaped the house with non-life-threatening injuries, but Sam Shaw suffered burns to his hands from trying to put out the fire. The couple’s dog did not survive.

The home, which was not salvageable, has since been knocked down. The Shaws reportedly lost everything except their phones – including their wallets, car keys, and clothes – in the fire. A GoFundMe has raised over $80,000 for the family.

When a storm knocks power out, officials said it is important to replace the oil in a generator within 24 hours of when it starts running.

Gardiner Fire Chief Rick Seiberg said people with generators should make sure they are placed far enough away from a building, house or porch. The exhaust should be directed away from anything structural, he said.

“The biggest thing, I can’t stress enough, is to have a proper hook-up,” Seiberg said. He added that “backfeeding” the generator hook-up can be particularly dangerous and he recommends that an electrician install the unit and check on it yearly.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency also advises that generators should be placed at least 15 feet away from any doors, windows and vents to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The house at 3 Dennis St. was built in 1814 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It formerly belonged to author Laura E. Richards, who moved there in 1876 with her husband, architect Henry Richards. Laura E. Richards was the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize in the biography category and wrote over 90 books in her lifetime.

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