PEMBROKE, Maine — Robin Hadlock-Seeley cringes when she recalls getting the telephone call last Easter-eve that her family’s summer home in Pembroke — which had been a part of her life for decades — had burned to the ground.
“It was a blow,” she said.
It was arson, she learned, one of nearly 100 deliberately set fires that have struck the Perry, Pembroke and Robbinston areas over the past two years, burning fields, barns and homes. Although the ground is still snow-covered, Down East fire chiefs are already worrying about what this season will bring. The fear is all too real that one or several arsonists are rapidly escalating from grass and woods fires to structure fires.
“We’re getting ready because as soon as the snow melts down enough for them to get into some of these places, they’ll be burning stuff up,” Perry Fire Chief Paula Frost said this week. “Everybody is on edge.”
Neighborhood Watch groups are being organized and firefighters are randomly patrolling the town on their own time.
“Last year we created an inventory of abandoned and closed seasonal houses, as well as fields and woodlands,” Frost said. “We also keep close track of where the logging operations are because they also provide access by ATVs to woodlands.”
Frost admitted that her primary concern is seasonal dwellings.
“We have a lot of criminal activity in this area. People break into empty homes, steal items, steal copper, and then torch the building to cover their tracks. We’ve had so many wood fires that have also had the potential to seriously escalate. We need a lot of extra eyes and ears out there,” she said.
The string of recent arson fires is frightening. On Jan. 9, fire consumed a farmhouse on Gin Cove Road. On Nov. 11, 2010, a mobile home was destroyed on South Meadow Road; nine days earlier, a home less than 600 yards away on South Meadow Road had been torched. All of these fires were in unoccupied buildings in Perry. Hadlock-Seeley’s home burned last spring in Pembroke. Robbinston has been plagued with woods fires.
Last year, Frost said, Perry had 45 wildland arsons — “We don’t usually get that many calls in a whole year,” she said. And there were 79 calls for service. On one Friday afternoon last May, Perry firefighters went to six wildfires — all intentionally set.
“We had three going at one time,” Frost said. “It does take a toll.”
Frost’s department consists of 24 volunteers, each of whom gets an annual stipend of $200 to $300. “That doesn’t even pay for the damage to all their personal clothing,” Frost said.
When she submitted her municipal budget this year, Frost did not include any hose purchases to offset the high cost of fighting so many fires. “We also lost our tanker trunk which failed due to overuse,” she said. “We’re now using a 1982 pumper.”
Sgt. Tim York of the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office said there are many reasons that people light fires. “It could be spite, revenge, profit, extremism, excitement, curiosity,” he said.
The number of fires in the Down East area is not what concerns his office most, though. “We had 15 fires in Bangor in just the last four months,” he said.
But what does worry him and local officials is that the Down East fires have all been arsons. York said his office is “very concerned” about the escalation in the Perry area. Although he would not conclusively link the wildfires to the structure fires, he did say that “there seems to be some correlation between them.”
He said two investigators have been assigned to the area but would not comment on any spring plan for the Fire Marshal’s Office. But he is hoping that area residents who might have information about the arsons will be partners in the investigation.
“One of the problems that we have to overcome,” he said, “is that the people in Washington County are very independent and they are very leery of law enforcement.” He said that many times information that could be key to solving crimes is withheld.
The Maine Forest Service’s Downeast Division extends from Castine to Calais and is headquartered in Jonesboro. Ranger Sgt. Courtney Hammond said his division has been meeting on the Perry-Pembroke fire problems since last fall.
“Obviously we are concerned about the number of fires we’ve had up there over the past two years,” Hammond said. “We are aware of the escalation and are working with the state Fire Marshal’s Office. We have a plan in place and will be using patrols, both on the ground and by air, and we will be as pro-active as we can.”
Hammond said that, just like last year, resources are available to bring rangers to the area from other parts of the state as fire activity increases.
Hammond said anyone with information about the fires in Washington County may call the Old Town forest service office at 800-987-0257. The state Fire Marshal’s Office can be reached at 626-3870.