ISLE AU HAUT, Maine — Lightning from a violent thunderstorm that ripped across central and eastern parts of the state early Friday morning is the likely cause of a fire that nearly consumed a summer house perched high on Isle au Haut.
The island community turned out in force to extinguish the fire and in a five-hour effort was able to save the 100-year-old island schoolhouse next door. But the newly renovated 1918 summer house was severely damaged.
“There was so much lightning and so much fog, it was a surreal scene,” said neighbor Mary Beth Steisslinger, whose husband was the first to spot the fire around 3:15 a.m. “Who expected to see a fire with all this rain and fog? It’s just crazy.”
When the firefighters arrived on the scene — just across the road from the firehouse — the roof was burning, Fire Chief Ellard Taylor said Friday. He speculated that the electrical storm that passed over the island around 1 a.m. sparked the blaze. When the 50 or so islanders arrived to put out the fire, Taylor thought that might only be able to keep it from spreading.
“I was really surprised we were able to put it out,” Taylor said. “I don’t know how much of it is going to be salvageable.”
A crew from Acadia National Park assisted in the firefighting efforts and brought a portable pump which could move 750 gallons of water per minute.
Even those in the close-knit island community who could not help physically were able to support firefighters, said Debra Schrader, an Acadia National Park employee.
“Everybody showed up willing to help. The woman who runs the bakery-cafe made pastries … and gallons of coffee,” she said.
The home is owned by George Cogan and his wife, who are seasonal residents of the island. The couple was thought to be in California, Taylor said.
The house had just been extensively remodeled, and Steisslinger said the project was about two weeks from completion.
“The guys who were working on it were heartsick,” she said.
The roof is gone, there is significant water damage, exterior walls were burned through, but some of the second and first floors were intact, according to Taylor.
Fire wasn’t the only destructive element at work late Thursday night and early Thursday morning.
Ray Sisk, the director of the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, said the towns of Appleton, Washington and Union were badly hit by the rain which accompanied the electrical storm.
Union was inundated by 2½ inches of rain overnight, most of which fell between 11:30 p.m. Thursday and 12:30 a.m. Friday. Appleton had just less than 2 inches of rainfall.
“Union had the most significant damage,” Sisk said. “When we get that much rain all at once, it can have a profound impact.”
Coggans Hill Road in Union and Snow Hill and Appleton Ridge roads in Appleton were closed Friday morning due to flood damage.
A number of other roads in the area were “damaged but passable” Friday morning, according to Sisk.
He said most storm damage had been temporarily repaired by Friday afternoon, and most of the closed Knox County roads had been reopened “to some degree.”
He expected Appleton Ridge Road would remain closed through the weekend and urged motorists to use caution around damaged roadways, especially in areas with visible erosion.
“It is never safe to attempt to drive through flood water on roads,” Sisk said in an e-mail.
According to a Central Maine Power Co. spokesperson, 115 customers in Waldo and Knox counties were without power as the storm peaked early Friday morning. By Friday afternoon, just a handful of homes in the midcoast region were left without power, and most of those were in Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties.
The spokesperson said that 13,000 Belfast area customers may have noticed a five-minute-long outage Friday afternoon, while crews repaired a damaged substation in Belfast.
Elsewhere in the state, The Associated Press reported that utility crews worked into Friday morning to restore power after the storm. Most of the 2,300 Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. customers who lost power were in Penobscot County, including some homes and businesses in downtown Bangor.
By midafternoon Friday, crews had restored power to all but 105 customers, most of them in Hancock County and 39 in Washington County, according to a press release from the company.