In the fire protection business, as in life, it is wise not to take too many things for granted. A routine situation became quickly serious for the Sebago Fire Department during last Wednesday's windy and rainy weather, but the Department's quick response saved a home from fire.
Wednesday, October 15, 2003 was a very blustery day in Sebago and the surrounding Sebago Lake communities. A front moving through dumped more than 1 ½ inches of rain in a very short time, accompanied by winds gusting to 50 mph. The winds started early and continued into the next day, causing widespread power outages around our area.
The combination of the heavy winds and rain resulted in more than 150 calls to area fire departments. Most of these were reports of trees fallen on wires, fires caused by short-circuiting electrical lines, and trees across roads. We normally class these calls as "service calls" and respond to size up and isolate the hazard until CMP can remove the tree, fix the broken wires, etc. These are not the most exciting type of call that the Sebago Fire Department responds to, perhaps one notch above watching paint dry. However responding to them with an engine and a crew is a necessity because you never know until you are on the scene whether there may be someone in danger from the downed wire or if a fire has been caused which threatens to grow into a large woods fire or structure fire.
The calls started at first light for the Sebago Fire Department. Power had been off one time or another all over town from downed wires. So, when the fire tone went off at 6:38 p.m. for the 6th tree down/wires down call for the day, I wasn't real excited. Fire Chief Ken Littlefield and I were at the town offices for a Fire House Committee meeting, and we both waited to see who responded. "Car 3 (Captain Glenn Snow) is 10-8 (responding) to Station 2" came over the radio, then similar calls from Lieutenant Jason Schoolcraft and Fire Fighter Wayne Polhemus. A few minutes later we heard "Engine 4 is 10-8 with a crew of three". The call had come in from Julian Street at Long Beach, so Engine 4 was on scene just a few minutes after leaving the fire house. The Chief and I looked at each other and agreed that the "tree on a wire" call was adequately covered and was not going to be a bigger problem. We turned back to the business of a new fire house for Sebago.
Ken and I had no more than sat down when the fire tone went off again, at 7:10 p.m. for reported "smoke in a building - possible structure fire". Scott and Amy Lavoie had come home to a house full of smoke at their rental house in East Sebago. Mention the words "smoke in a building" to fire fighters and watch their reaction! Smoke in a building too often means that there is a fire in the structure. In this case the second phrase "possible structure fire" removed any doubt about how serious this call could be.
Ken and I jumped up, grabbed our papers and lap top, and headed for the door. "I'll pick up Engine 2," I said to Ken as we raced out the door. While I stopped down the hill at Station 1 to pick up the engine, the Chief headed directly to the scene. Deputy Chief Alan Green was just ahead of us in his truck. As I pulled out of the station, lights flashing and the siren howling, I heard the radio blare that Engine 4 was leaving the earlier call at Long Beach and responding to the call in East Sebago.
Because Engine 4 was manned and on the road nearby responding to a mundane "tree on wires" call, they were able to pull into the "smoke in the building" scene in about 5 minutes after the call came in. They came upon heavy smoke billowing out of the windows of the house and a working fire in the basement.
Captain Snow and Fire Fighter Polhemus already had their turn out gear and SCBA air packs on. While they jumped down to pull a hose line off the truck, Lt Schoolcraft started up the pump and charged the hose line with water. Glen and Wayne entered the basement and found a raging fire in the kitchen area of the basement. The fire had not spread too far beyond the kitchen, and because they were there quickly, were able to knock the fire down in minutes. They then started checking to see if the fire had spread further in the basement beyond the kitchen.
Meanwhile Deputy Chief Greene was on the scene with backup fire fighters to make sure that there was no fire elsewhere in the home. At the same time Chief Littlefield set up command. Since we did not know at the time the true extent of the fire, he called in mutual aid from Standish, Naples and West Baldwin. Sebago's Engines 2 and 4 and Standish's Tower 1 were at the fire scene, with backup units at the water hydrant on Route 114 and at Sebago's Stations 1 and 2. Additional fire fighter crews from Sebago, Standish and Naples aided the overhaul in the house.
Fire fighters used Sebago's Thermal Imaging Camera to check to see if there was any fire in the ceiling or walls. Ceiling tiles were removed to expose charred timbers, boards and electrical wiring. There was limited fire damage to the basement but no where else in the house, although there was heavy smoke damage throughout the building. The Fire Marshall inspected the fire about midnight Wednesday night with the Chief and Deputy Chief. He ruled the fire of undetermined origin, believed to be electrical.
I spoke with an electrician friend of mine for his thoughts on the matter. He hadn't seen the house, but based on my description he suggested that the power being out and then coming back on just before the fire might have contributed to the situation. Electrical arcing can occasionally occur when the power comes back on suddenly after it has been out, if there is a heavy load on the system. If appliances are all left on when the power goes out, there could be a heavy surge to turn them all on at once.
He recommends turning things off when the power goes out, and then turning them on one at a time when the power is restored. That is good advice for all of us to follow, particularly living in Sebago where power outages are not all that uncommon.
A vital part of any fire fighting effort is the part played by rescue staff. One of the first Sebago units on the scene was Sebago Rescue and three of their members. As the fire fighters left the building after fighting the fire they were directed to the Rescue unit where they underwent "rehab". Their blood pressure, pulse, and general physical condition was monitored, and they were rehydrated and had a chance to cool down. Only with a clean bill of health from Rescue personnel were the fire fighters allowed to go back into the fire scene.
The owner of the home Eric Shute and his renters Scott and Amy Lavoie were on the scene as the fire fighters completed their overhaul. Scott said that they had first come home after work to find the power out in East Sebago. They picked up their dogs and went out to eat. Power came back on at about 6:30 pm. When they came back home at little after 7:00 p.m. they found the house full of smoke and called 911 to report it. Their quick action in calling in the smoke and fire was key to saving their home, as was the lucky happenstance of having a crew of fire fighters and fire engine on the road for a "tree on wire" call in the neighborhood.
Here are two other tips for home owners who may have to call the fire department. Make sure that your house number is marked on your mailbox or somewhere out by the road. Precious seconds were lost while Engine 4 went up Route 114 past the house looking for the address and then came back to the right driveway. Also, move any cars that might be blocking the driveway or access so that the fire trucks can get on scene unimpeded.
[Note - This article was published in the Bridgton News on October 23, 2003]
Last updated October 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2003, Allen Crabtree