ELLSWORTH, Maine — A fire on a commuter bus Wednesday morning destroyed the vehicle but did not result in any injuries, according to a local fire official.
The fire was reported around 7:30 a.m. after a passenger on the Island Explorer bus smelled smoke, Ellsworth Deputy Fire Chief Richard Tupper said. The bus, which the driver suspected had a flat tire, was parked behind Maine Coast Mall while five passengers waited for a new bus to arrive to take them to Mount Desert Island, Tupper said.
The driver had gone to an Island Explorer storage site in Ellsworth to get another bus when the passenger got off the parked bus to investigate where the smoke smell might be coming from, according to Tupper. He saw a small fire in the driver’s side wheel well, and then alerted other passengers about the fire before calling the fire department.
The bus was powered with propane, and three of the propane tanks on the burning vehicle were venting when firefighters arrived, Tupper said. The tanks are designed to vent in the event of a fire, he said, and were spraying jets of burning propane from the bottom of the bus toward the pavement.
There were explosions from the fire, but not because tanks were rupturing, as firefighters had at first feared, the deputy chief said. The loud booms coming from the bus were from tires that were exploding from the heat, he said.
“That certainly got our attention,” Tupper said.
Officials are still trying to determine how the fire started, he said. They have not been able to confirm that the bus had a flat tire or whether there might have been a mechanical or other type of issue in the wheel well that sparked the blaze.
A few minutes after firefighters arrived, they had most of the flames knocked down, he said. The venting propane tanks emptied out soon thereafter, enabling firefighters to get close to the bus so they could extinguish the remaining few flames.
Tupper said five nearby vehicles were damaged by the blaze, but three of them only very slightly. Two of them had more substantial damage, one with significant melting on its front end and another to a side view mirror.
Downeast Transportation General Manager Paul Murphy said the bus was carrying paying commuter passengers when the fire broke out. Downeast Transportation operates the free seasonal Island Explorer bus service on and around MDI in the summer, but uses some of the same vehicles year-round for paying commuters and other purposes.
Murphy said he and other Downeast Transportation officials are “counting their blessings” that no one was injured in Wednesday’s blaze. He said the company hopes, if it can, to find out what what caused the fire. Downeast Transportation keeps all of its buses fully insured and has contacted its insurance company about the Wednesday morning incident, he said.
Murphy said he does not think any of Downeast Transportation’s scheduled services will be affected by the loss of this particular bus.
“I think we are in good shape in that regard,” he said.
According to the deputy fire chief, when the call first came in, firefighters were told the bus was behind Mill Mall, which is on Route 1A north of the city’s fire station. When they arrived at Mill Mall a few minutes later, they could not find any fire and then found out the burning bus was behind Maine Coast Mall on High Street, which is south of City Hall.
Tupper said the confusion demonstrates how important it is that the fire department gets accurate information when fires are reported. He said he’s not sure the confusion Wednesday contributed to the fire damage, but in other situations such delays easily could.
“It’s a good day when everyone goes home uninjured,” Tupper said.