Fire chief: Assistant’s error leads to loss of house

On Wednesday Mike Russell looked over fire damage to the rental home he was living in before a stove and chimney fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. Some of the charred remains of the second floor had spilled into the stairwell (on right). So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street in Kingman have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
On Wednesday Mike Russell looked over fire damage to the rental home he was living in before a stove and chimney fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. Some of the charred remains of the second floor had spilled into the stairwell (on right). So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street in Kingman have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
Posted Jan. 19, 2011, at 9:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:24 a.m.
On Wednesday Mike Russell looked over charred debris in the living room of the rental home he was living in Kingman before a stove and chimney  fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
On Wednesday Mike Russell looked over charred debris in the living room of the rental home he was living in Kingman before a stove and chimney fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
On Wednesday Mike Russell and his dog " Gretchen" assessed the damage to the rental home they were living in before a stove and chimney  fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street in Kingman have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
On Wednesday Mike Russell and his dog " Gretchen" assessed the damage to the rental home they were living in before a stove and chimney fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street in Kingman have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
On Wednesday Mike Russell looked over charred debris in the living room of the rental home he was living in Kingman before a  stove and chimney  fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
On Wednesday Mike Russell looked over charred debris in the living room of the rental home he was living in Kingman before a stove and chimney fire gutted a major portion of it Tuesday evening. So far, he said three of his neighbors on Park Street have offered to put him up until he can find housing. (BDN photo by John Clarke Russ)
Kingman Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Danny Noble [left] and Springfield Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Gary Martin get ready to climb down from the roof of a Kingman house after dousing a roof flare-up on Jan. 18, 2011. (BDN photo by Nick Sambides Jr.)
Kingman Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Danny Noble [left] and Springfield Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Gary Martin get ready to climb down from the roof of a Kingman house after dousing a roof flare-up on Jan. 18, 2011. (BDN photo by Nick Sambides Jr.)

KINGMAN, Maine — A volunteer assistant fire chief who gave a tenant a firefighting device rather than report the flames he saw unintentionally contributed to a chimney fire’s eventually destroying a house on Tuesday, Fire Chief John Moody said Wednesday.

Kingman Volunteer Assistant Fire Chief Glenn Odonal and tenant Mike Russell erred when they didn’t immediately call 911 when they saw the flames at 68 Park St. at about 2 p.m. Tuesday, Moody said.

Instead, Odonal, who lives nearby, gave Russell a chimney flare — a device that, when placed in a stove or fireplace, exhausts chimney fires by burning hotly enough to absorb the air the flames consume — and both concluded that the fire was out a short time later, the fire chief said.

Russell again called Odonal when he saw heavy smoke on the second floor at around 8 p.m., but this time Odonal immediately radioed a report of the fire to dispatchers at Penobscot Regional Communications Center in Bangor, Moody said.

“If they had called 911 immediately, all we would have had to put out was a chimney fire,” Moody said late Tuesday. “Instead, it spread through the house. This is a message we keep having to repeat again and again. Why, I don’t know, because it’s the simplest thing.”

“I would rather have 100 people call 911 and have everything turn good than have nobody call and have everything turn out bad,” he added Wednesday.

When the first responding firefighters arrived several minutes after the radio call, flames were gutting the second floor and burning several holes in the roof of the two-story dwelling — far too much damage to risk an interior attack on the fire or to save the building, Moody said.

About 15 volunteer firefighters from the Kingman, Lee and Springfield fire departments fought the fire. No injuries were reported, said Moody, who was grateful for the assistance.

“I can understand the concept of the flare working, but there is no guarantee the flare is going to burn long enough,” Moody said. “It’s a temporary kind of slowdown thing, nothing that I would depend on.”

Odonal said he regretted his decision.

“Usually in a chimney fire, you probably can call 911, but the [tenant] didn’t want anybody going through his house. We would have had to go up through the attic, and he’s kind of a private guy,” Odonal said.

“There’s nothing, really, I could say. In hindsight I wish I had called [911] right then,” he added.

And Russell, Moody said, apparently didn’t use the flare. Moody said he found it, still intact, next to the wood stove on Wednesday, though the flames apparently went out before flaring up again later.

Russell said he was lucky that he didn’t die in the fire. He had already returned Tuesday from a visit to his doctor in Rochester, N.H., where he lives part time, and said he started the first-floor wood stove to warm the house. Russell said it was sometime shortly before 8 p.m., as he was lying downstairs about to fall asleep when he heard for about 10 minutes a light crinkling sound, like ice breaking and falling. When he went to the second floor, he saw heavy smoke, he said. He later guessed that the sound was the crackling of the fire burning in the attic or second floor.

Russell said that in the excitement, he immediately telephoned his next-door neighbor, Dale Coombs, Odonal’s sister-in-law, in search of Odonal, with whom she shares a telephone line, and Odonal eventually responded.

Coombs said she didn’t call 911 because “I was in a panic. The man called me, scared to death.”

Coombs sounded stunned Wednesday by the turn of events.

“He had a chimney fire. We got the chimney fire out, and we thought we were all set,” she said.

Coombs put up Russell in her home overnight Tuesday. He began moving his belongings out of the home Wednesday and expected to stay in a camp nearby, Moody said, though local American Red Cross officials were looking for him to see if he needed help.

Compounding the tragedy, Moody said, is news from the homeowner, who is in Florida, that the house is not insured.

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