MILLINOCKET, Maine — A wood stove left burning with no one home started a fire that destroyed a trailer and left two East Street residents homeless on Saturday, officials said Sunday. No one was injured.
Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Malcolm said he believes a spark from the stove at 16 East St. ignited wood placed nearby that smoldered and burned for several hours before drawing a 911 call at about 1 p.m.
“It had been cooking a long time before it finally broke through a wall and somebody saw it. Until it broke through the wall nobody knew it was there,” Malcolm said Sunday.
Homeowners Michael and Betty Jo Austin had left with their dog at about 9 a.m. to visit Michael’s mother in East Millinocket, Betty Jo Austin said.
“We lost everything. I saved pictures and that was it, because they were in the back bedroom, which was untouched,” Austin said Sunday. “We are just taking one day at a time. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I am just glad we weren’t home and sleeping when this happened.”
Michael Austin is 49 and disabled. His wife is 43 and unemployed, she said. Their friend Dawn Violette Boyington said that she and several of the couple’s friends are trying to organize at least one fundraiser or collection of goods to help the Austins recover. The Austins have no fire insurance, Malcolm and Austin said.
No relief plans had been made final as of Sunday.
Firefighters could do little to save the trailer. Malcolm, who called for mutual aid from East Millinocket firefighters immediately after getting the 911 call, said firefighters mounted an interior attack on the flames and knocked them down but the trailer was already too far gone by then.
Their work was slowed considerably by the heavy snow accumulation and brutally cold near-zero temperatures, which quickly created hazardously icy conditions, Malcolm said.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” Malcolm said. “The guys did a great job considering the circumstances. We had to go really slow.”
The Fire Department’s log lists the call coming in at 1:05 p.m. The last trucks left the scene at 4:30 p.m., firefighters said. Sixteen firefighters from East Millinocket and Millinocket, including two Millinocket trucks, an East Millinocket truck and an East Millinocket ambulance, responded to the call.
Austin said she suspects that an electrical fault near the stove, which Malcolm said was the trailer’s primary heat source, caused the fire because the stove area was relatively undamaged but some wiring is burnt nearby.
“Where the wood stove is sitting it is not black,” she said.
The American Red Cross is paying for the Austins to stay at a Medway motel for the next few days. After that, the Austins can stay with relatives, Betty Jo Austin said.
Austin said she was thrilled and very grateful to hear that friends were planning fundraisers. Her family had lived in the trailer since the 1990s, she said.
“I usually don’t ask for help,” she said. “I am devastated. I lost everything I own.”