PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Friday, Nov. 13, was a long night for firefighters from Presque Isle and five surrounding communities.
The first flames at a bag warehouse near Presque Isle’s downtown were reported around 10 p.m. Firefighters doused the fire for the next 13 hours, battling its consumption of a wealth of fuel inside, such as large rolls of paper and plastic and barrels of toxic ink and alcohol solvent.
When the last embers were soaked, the damage to Northeast Packaging Co.’s Rice Street warehouse was so extensive that today there is virtually no sign of the building on what is now a snow-covered lot.
A fire such as this creates ripples in any community, but in Presque Isle, the big splash came two days later. Timothy MacFarline, a 23-year-old firefighter from Easton whom Chief Darrell White called the “model firefighter,” was arrested for setting the blaze.
“In all honesty, if someone walked in and said one of my firefighters set the fire, I would never have picked Timmy,” said White. “He was at every call, every meeting, every training, and he was liked by the officers of the department.”
White called a department meeting on Sunday, Nov. 15, to announce MacFarline’s arrest. He and Deputy Chief Rich Wark wanted to be the ones to deliver the bad news.
“From the members we got a mixed bag of reactions,” White said. “Some of it was anger that somebody would do that, period. Some of it was because one of their own had put them in harm’s way. They didn’t want to believe that … He was right behind us on a hose line.”
For Wark, who was the incident commander at the warehouse fire, MacFarline’s alleged arson was a breach of the most sacred kind of trust.
“We inherently trust each other; we have to,” Wark said. “When someone betrays that trust, it’s bad.”
MacFarline’s guilt is by no means a foregone conclusion in the minds of some of his friends at the Fire Department, and it’s far from settled in the courts. MacFarline, charged with arson by the Maine Fire Marshal’s Office, posted $5,000 cash bail the day after his arrest. His case is pending review by a grand jury, which ac-cording to the Aroostook County District Attorney’s Office in Presque Isle is scheduled to convene on Jan. 7 and 8. MacFarline’s initial court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 21 at Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou.
Reached by telephone on Thursday, MacFarline declined to be interviewed. Asked if he has a lawyer, he said, “No, not yet.”
Investigators, including White and officials from the fire marshal’s office, refused to discuss the details of the case because the investigation is ongoing. Fire Marshal Investigator Timothy Lowell told the Bangor Daily News last month that footage from security cameras at a nearby business provided important information that led to MacFarline’s arrest.
Bob Jackson is the Presque Isle Fire Department’s training officer, and as such, he ushered MacFarline through Firefighting 1 and 2 classes, which qualified MacFarline to be a full-time firefighter. MacFarline was a member of the department’s 33-person call staff. He is no longer employed by the department, according to White.
Jackson, who said he considers MacFarline a friend, called his arrest shocking.
“I was hurt when they said who it was,” said Jackson, but he hasn’t passed judgment on MacFarline, and neither have other members of the department.
“We as firefighters don’t have any proof,” he said. “They haven’t given us any details. I’m just waiting to hear what happens.”
Presque Isle firefighter B.J. Estey agreed.
“It’s kind of a hard thing to swallow,” he said. “He’s one of us, one of our so-called family members. We have so much trust in each other.”
White said details about the investigation need to be kept secret to preserve the integrity of the case. “[Members of the department] don’t have all of the information which led to [MacFarline’s] arrest,” he said. “That is something we just don’t share.”
Maine’s firefighter arsonists
Three days after MacFarline’s arrest, a second Maine firefighter was accused of setting a fire. Jeffrey A. Tyler, of Bethel, a volunteer firefighter in the Oxford County town of Greenwood, was charged with two counts of arson for a fire that destroyed two vacant buildings in Locke Mills on Nov. 18.
The back-to-back arrests brought attention to the subject of firefighter arsonists, but Deputy Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said it’s a rare occurrence in Maine and across the nation.
“It’s not something we see a significant number of cases of,” said Thomas, who was formerly fire chief for the city of Portland. “Nationwide, [the frequency of firefighter arsons] is fairly the same in all areas.”
The fire marshal’s office does not keep specific data about how often firefighters in Maine commit arson, according to Thomas. A search of the BDN archives revealed that since 2000, at least nine firefighters have been accused of arson in Maine. The destruction ranged from vacant buildings to a horse barn. At least one of the accused firefighters later was acquitted.
Firefighter arsons in Maine are typically in wild land settings or in vacant buildings, which to Thomas indicates that the setter falls into the “thrill-seeker” category of fire-starters.
“They see it as very benign, actually,” said Thomas. “Their judgment is clouded by the excitement of responding to the call, but in reality it’s a serious crime and it’s dangerous.”
A 2003 report on firefighter arson by the U.S. Fire Administration stated that “the number one motive was excitement, especially among young firefighters who are eager to put their training to personal use and to be seen as heroes to fellow firefighters and the community they served.”
There is a lack of data on how common firefighter arsons are in the United States, according to the report, which stated that “such a database would be challenging to develop because it could only be populated after criminal proceedings occurred and a verdict of guilty or a confession was obtained.”
Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the South Carolina Forestry Commission have published detailed profiles of a typical firefighter arsonist that are used by investigators nationwide. Despite the independence of the two studies, the resulting profiles are remarkably alike. Thomas said they fit the profile of Maine’s fire-fighter arsonists “very closely.”
According to the profiles, most firefighter arsonists are white males ages 17 to 26 who had a traumatic childhood. They often exhibit high intelligence but have a record of poor academic performance. In many cases, unusual stresses in a person’s life or problems such as alcoholism or mental illness also are involved.
Seven of the nine cases found in the BDN archives involved males ages 19 to 27. The eighth case was a 32-year-old male, and the ninth was a 23-year-old female.
Despite those incidents, fires set by firefighters represent a tiny fraction of the arsons in Maine. In 2008, according to Thomas, the fire marshal’s office investigated 567 fires, 151 of which were classified as arson. Of the arson cases, 30 remain under investigation, and an added 156 fires were of undetermined origin.
Dr. Dian Williams is the director of the Center for Arson Research, an organization that has studied arson in the United States for more than 25 years. Williams, who is also a criminal justice professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, said firefighter arson “is more prevalent than most people would like to imagine,” although a lack of detailed data on the subject has plagued her research for years.
Williams said that in addition to the thrill-seeking aspect of any arson, firefighters who do it are typically stimulated by their ability to fool investigators.
“They play this secret game,” said Williams. “The game really reinforces their superiority over the chief, fire investigators, insurance investigators and police. They don’t care if you never figure it out … but if a fire is talked up as an accidental fire, then there’s not much fun in it for them.”
The longer they go undiscovered, the more brazen their fire setting becomes.
“I’ve interviewed a lot of thrill-seeker arsonists, and many of them told me that they believed they were under suspicion,” said Williams. “Instead of saying ‘I need to dial this back,’ in fact what [being under suspicion] did was reinforce that behavior. It doesn’t seem to be a warning.”
Thomas said firefighters who commit arson pay a grave price for their crimes, only part of which is a felony conviction and prison time. Because their crime is so at odds with the core commitment of being a firefighter — to prevent and extinguish fires — they often face harsh and sudden alienation by their friends, co-workers and communities.
“In a lot of small departments and small towns, everybody knows everybody,” said Thomas. “It goes back to the reality that people in the department involved feel hurt, confused and angry.”
Bangor Fire Chief Jeffrey Cammack, who is also president of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association, said a firefighter arsonist sometimes can undermine a community’s confidence in its fire department.
“It’s certainly a black eye for the fire service at the national and state level,” he said. “It’s a shame.”
Chief White said he has heard nothing like that from the Greater Presque Isle community.
“We’ve always had strong support from our community, and I don’t believe this has changed that at all,” he said.
On the minds of White and some of his firefighters is Timothy MacFarline’s future. In addition to losing his job at the Fire Department, MacFarline was an employee for Northeast Packaging Co., which owned the warehouse he is accused of torching. MacFarline is married with a small child, said White.
“I don’t want anyone to turn the other way and pretend he was not a friend,” said White. “I would assume that those who were close to Timmy still have contact with him. He’s going to need that support.”