Firefighters and forest rangers scrambled to douse 24-30 grass fires burning as much as 1½ acres along Interstate 95 from Carmel to Sherman on Tuesday that investigators say began with solder falling into a bin.
Burning bits of plywood, solder and other debris found along the road caused investigators to suspect that some sort of bin had been cut down with a blowtorch to fit under highway overpasses on the back of a flatbed tractor-trailer truck and that solder from the job had ignited debris, Maine Forest Service Lt. Jeff Currier said.
The burning trash then blew out onto the road and ignited the dry grass as the truck headed north. Currier called the incident one of the strangest sets of fires he has ever seen.
“At first we had heard that there were some on the southbound side [of the highway], and we thought we had some arsonist playing games,” Currier said Tuesday.
Most of the fires were confined to the northbound side of the highway, but some apparently burned in the median and also along Route 2 in Carmel, Currier said. The distance involved appears to be about 90 miles along I-95.
Maine State Police and Maine Forest Service rangers had stopped a truck in Oakfield as of about 4:45 p.m. they said inadvertently may have caused the fires, Currier said. He said he believed the truck was headed from Troy to somewhere in Aroostook County. He was unsure whether the driver would face charges.
“Nothing comes to mind initially for what one might charge somebody with,” Currier said.
The incident began for police and rangers at about 1:30 p.m. with a report of a fire on Route 2 in Carmel, which investigators say the truck used, Currier said. Soon after came a report of a fire in Lincoln along I-95.
The connection between the Carmel fires and the others remains somewhat tenuous, Currier said, but investigators have no doubts that the fires in Lincoln and farther north came from the same cause.
“It didn’t take us long to figure it out once we got to Lincoln,” Currier said. “You could just see them one behind the other.”
Most of the fires occurred north of Lincoln and appeared to burn small areas, though one likely torched about 1½ acres, he said. At least six forest rangers and a ranger helicopter equipped with a water bucket fought the flames. Several fire departments that patrol the highway also responded, Currier said.
Currier asked anyone who saw a truck causing fires along I-95 between 1:30 and 4 p.m. Tuesday on I-95 in the northbound lane to call investigators at 827-1800.
It is not unusual for strings of fires to be caused by vehicles riding the interstate, particularly in dry or hot weather. The usual culprits are overheated brake shoes, catalytic converters and items such as chains dragging behind vehicles causing sparks, Currier said.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like these,” he said.
“It speaks a little bit to the dryness we are starting to have and some of the strange but true fires that we have had that this happened,” Currier said. “We are not in any dire drought or anything like that, but it is summertime in Maine and we do have fires in this state. If we have a period where there are 10 to 14 days without significant rain, this is what typically happens.”
The problem with such fires, Currier said, is they could smolder for hours.
“We could have one starting even as we speak,” he said.