OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Firefighters say a freight train sprayed sparks as it traveled through five southern Maine cities, causing a fast-moving brush fire and chain of propane tank explosions that destroyed at least 10 nearby campers.
Old Orchard Beach Fire Chief John Glass said no one suffered any major injuries in the damaging, sweeping blaze, although several firefighters suffered from exhaustion working long hours in the heat.
Glass said his department first received reports of small fires along the railroad tracks in the town around 1:20 p.m. Thursday. Crews remained on the scene into early evening, with most trucks starting to leave just after 6:30 p.m.
Firefighters from more than 20 towns battled the five-alarm blaze, which spread along train tracks from South Portland through Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Biddeford.
“A lot of the units that ended up here helping us … came from those other cities after they controlled the fires in their cities,” said Glass, who added that about 75 firefighters were on the scene at the “worst part of the fire” in his town.
Glass said the Wagon Wheel RV Resort and Campground, at 3 Old Orchard Beach Road, received the worst damage along the line of fires.
“[The fire] caught fencing and came into the campground and started catching campers on fire. When that started happening it was a rapid spread and propane tanks started blowing,” he said. “We lost several campers from the initial explosions from that. We counted about 10 campers that were totally destroyed, and six more that are damaged to one degree or another.”
One woman who worked at Wagon Wheel, but did not identify herself, said, “A train went by and then there was fire. … The whole place was covered with smoke.”
“The whole town was covered in smoke,” another man nearby corrected.
Lt. Peter Anton of the Biddeford Fire Department said the flames were extinguished in Biddeford and Scarborough before 5 p.m., but flare-ups vexed firefighters in Saco and Old Orchard Beach later in the evening.
A Maine Forest Service helicopter flew from Augusta to help control the fire, Regional Forest Ranger Matt Gomes said. A second helicopter started out from Old Town but was turned around.
“They have personnel working to contain all the fires,” Gomes said.
Gomes said officials continue to collect information about the cause of the fire, but Glass said investigators believe primarily that a train is to blame.
“We’ve had some reports that one of the freight trains that came through town was throwing out sparks from beneath it,” he said. “I don’t know if that was because the brakes were locked up or there was a malfunction or what the reason was, but there were a lot of sparks coming off one the freight trains and some of the cars, and that’s what started the little spot fires. It’s my understanding that it went from South Portland all the way to just about Biddeford.”
The Maine Forest Service has a team of investigators working on the fire, according to Regional Forest Ranger Jeff Currier.
“[We] are interviewing witnesses, checking all train traffic and examining the fire scenes,” Currier said in a text message to a BDN reporter.
Anyone with info on the blaze is advise to call the Forest Service at 1-800-750-9777
BDN writers Ryan McLaughlin and Beth Brogan contributed to this report.