FREEPORT, Maine — When a garage fire broke out Sunday morning on Fernald Road, the Freeport Fire and Rescue team had a couple of extra hands on deck: firefighters who had come into the station to use the gym and talk.
“That was very fortunate for the homeowner,” Fire Chief Darrel Fournier said Tuesday. “It was tragic he had a fire to begin with, but the fact that we had enough people here to handle it was a big positive.”
When firefighters arrived at the home of Malcolm McIntosh just after 8:30 a.m., they found flames blowing from a torched garage and recreational trailer into the house. The Freeport firefighters — aided by the Brunswick, Pownal, Durham and Yarmouth departments — controlled the fire in a half hour.
One of McIntosh’s three sons was living in the trailer, Fournier said. The son was using a space heater that overloaded an electrical circuit in the garage, igniting the blaze.
The garage and trailer were a total loss, with damage estimated at $125,000, Fournier said. But the house sustained only minor damage, and the family was able to re-enter the home that night.
It was an incident where just a few extra firefighters on hand may have made a big difference, underscoring the department’s need for additional staff during what has been a very busy start to 2014.
Freeport Fire and Rescue has responded to four structure fires this month and six since November. The department has averaged 10 calls a day this month, Fournier said, including fire, emergency medical and nonemergency medical calls.
Cold weather has been a factor. In addition to Sunday’s fire, two house fires on Griffin Road were caused by heating appliances, Fournier said. Others — two separate cooking fires last week on Ware Road, and a Christmas Eve fire on Starboard Lane caused by a malfunctioning hospital bed — seemed random.
Fournier advises residents to take safety precautions: Make sure homes are equipped with working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, practice a fire escape plan with family members and determine a meeting spot, ensure ice and snow aren’t blocking exits and maintain at least two clear means of egress.
He also encouraged anyone interested to visit a station and fill out an application.
“We’re always looking for more volunteer firefighters because there’s a shortage across Maine and across the country,” he said.
Fournier said he hopes to add two new per diem positions, which would be filled by a rotating crew of firefighters and bolster the number of round-the-clock staff. Freeport’s new firefighters and emergency medical services workers take training courses of 180 and 140 hours, respectively, for which they are paid.
And while fire and EMS personnel are most in demand, there are other ways to get involved.
“There’s a lot of needs from fire departments across the state that aren’t necessarily what we call boots on the ground,” Fournier said. “There are needs for people who may have skills in business applications, planning, fundraising.”
The rash of fires has squeezed the department’s operating budget, Fournier said — the cost of additional man-hours, and repairs to nozzles and other equipment that have frozen and malfunctioned — but there remains room for more fire personnel.
“It’s hard work and dangerous work,” Fournier said. “And you’re not going to get rich doing it. But when we have a fire of Sunday’s magnitude, and you can go to a neighbor’s house and save it, that certainly is well worth it.”