ELLSWORTH, Maine – Fires have swept homes in Ellsworth, Blue Hill, Northeast Harbor and in many other towns so far this summer, leaving many homeless and thousands of dollars in damage behind.
When the firefighters shut off the water and put the hoses away, the American Red Cross steps in to help those left homeless to get back on their feet by offering temporary housing, clothing and other basic needs.
But that job is becoming increasingly more difficult.
Officials with the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross recently said the number of fires they respond to has been consistently rising over the past decade.
“We’ ve seen a 50 percent increase in fires over the past 10 years,” said Hillary Roberts, emergency services director for the American Red Cross Pine Tree Chapter.
Just comparing fiscal year 2007 with fiscal year 2008, there was a 33 percent increase, and Roberts said the largest changes have been in the most recent years.
The nonprofit organization reported 104 structure fires during its 2007 fiscal year, which was from July 2006 to July 2007. That number jumped to 150 structure fires in fiscal year 2008.
The Pine Tree Chapter covers eight counties in Maine: Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington, Aroostook, Waldo, Hancock, Knox and parts of Lincoln.
More fires mean more money spent on services, and this year’ s expenses have left the Pine Tree Chapter with a tight budget.
“We are in a critical financial situation,” Roberts said. “Everyone is scrambling for that dollar to pay for heating costs, so they are finding it hard to donate.”
The Pine Tree Chapter operates with two paid representatives and 180 volunteers. It is funded through grants and donations from the community and receives no funding from the national Red Cross organization.
“We just ask people to do the best they can,” said Roberts.
The rise in fires has more than just the Red Cross concerned.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in fire activity,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas. He said there were 4,203 fires statewide in 2006 and 5,681 fires reported in 2007, a 14 percent increase.
“We don’ t expect the fires to slow down,” said Thomas.
The high cost of fuel has both the Red Cross and the State Fire Marshal’ s Office worried about the fire potential this coming winter.
“People are making difficult decisions to heat their homes,” said Roberts. “Sometimes they get a little creative. They turn on their cooking stoves to get warm or leave the space heater on all night.”
Thomas said there is a historical trend that with the high cost of heating fuel, the number of heating-related fires will increase.
“We saw it in the oil embargo in the ‘ 70s,” Thomas said. “We anticipate this winter people will seek alternate methods to heat their homes. That usually ends up in more fires.”
Thomas attributed this to many factors, including not leaving enough room around space heaters.
He added that people will start to use wood stoves that haven’ t been used in a long time, not realizing what condition their chimneys or stoves are in.
“Sometimes the actual stoves need maintenance, and that results in a fire,” he said.
The lack of seasoned wood this year isn’ t going to help either, according to Thomas.
“People are going to burn more green wood, and that creates more creosote in chimneys, which results in more chimney fires,” he said.
The number of fires has risen so much that the Fire Marshal’ s Office added two positions to help deal with the heavy workload.
“We are literally working around the clock,” said Thomas.
The Fire Marshal’ s Office now has 10 investigators and three supervisors.
“This is a big state with a lot of activity for so few staff,” he said.
Thomas said the State Fire Marshal’ s Office plans to release multiple public service announcements this fall focusing on fire prevention.
Roberts and Thomas agreed that the damage fires have caused is more severe in recent years.
“The magnitude has been significant,” said Thomas. “You have 18 people being displaced in Northeast Harbor. That is quite a few people for one incident.”
The fires “are just worse,” said Roberts. “We are seeing a lot more total losses.”
The Red Cross is hoping that the winter will surprise them, but expects one of the worst winter fire seasons to date.
The Red Cross is “critical in helping families,” said Thomas. “Without them, there are a lot of displaced families with nowhere to go.”
on donating to the Pine Tree Chapter of the Red Cross, call Hillary Roberts at 941-2903 or go to www.pinetree.redcross.org.