Maine Forest Service rangers were collecting evidence along Interstate 95 on Wednesday as they continued investigating 27 grass fires between Carmel and Sherman started by debris that fell from a northbound flatbed truck.
Forest Rangers Joe Mints and Kevin Somers and Forensic Specialist Stephen Wipperman were in Herseyville just north of Benedicta at about 1 p.m. collecting and mapping evidence and damage from Tuesday’s string of fires, Mints said.
They had eight fires mapped and hoped to finish mapping the 16 set between Benedicta and Sherman on Wednesday. Investigators plan to map the 11 south of Sherman along the northbound lane when that work is finished, and potentially could find evidence of more fires, Mints said.
A case like this, Mints said, could result in charges ranging from felony arson — if investigators find evidence of intentional destruction — to a summons for improper disposal of ignited materials, which carries fines and reimbursement for damage and firefighter costs.
None of those charges likely will apply here, Mints said, as the driver apparently could not see or didn’t otherwise know that the debris was burning or had escaped the hopper on the flatbed truck.
“Everything indicates the truck was an ignition source and there was no indication of negligence or ill intent at this point,” Mints said Wednesday. “All evidence indicates that it was just an unfortunate accident.”
He said he did not have the name of the driver immediately available Wednesday.
As many as 30 fires along the highway and in the median might have been started by a truck carrying farming equipment and a hopper from Carmel to Aroostook County on Tuesday afternoon. No one was injured. About 5½ acres of burned area had been mapped as of Wednesday, Mints said. Some of the specific fires burned as much as 1½ acres.
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 Tuesday.
“The evidence is pretty consistent with our position yesterday,” Mints said.
The dry weather and strong winds Tuesday could have made the grass fires far more destructive than they were, said Mints, who warned motorists and residents to be especially careful in their handling of burning or flammable materials.
“It had probably one of the highest potentials I have seen [for damage],” he said. “Had it happened early in the spring or in a few weeks from now, it could have been pretty catastrophic.”