OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — A string of brush fires that followed railroad tracks through at least four southern Maine communities more than two months ago was caused by a faulty freight train, according to a report released by state forest rangers on Thursday.
The conclusion comports with widely reported eyewitness accounts at the time of the May 8 fires, which included claims of sparks seen spraying out from underneath the passing train, but the investigation did not uncover what was apparently wrong with the locomotive.
The investigators from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Forest Ranger service reported that they “found no violations of Maine law” and that “[t]here are no charges pending in relation to the fires.”
The 554-page report also stops short of pinning down an overall damage estimate for the blazes.
A summary of the study released on Thursday by the department states that victims and insurance companies are still tallying dollar figures, but that the total damages “are expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“Several properties were damaged or destroyed as a result of these fires,” the summary states. “The hardest hit area was the Wagon Wheel Campground in Old Orchard Beach, which suffered the loss of 10 camper trailers and damage to several others.”
A Pan Am Railways freight train spitting sparks caused no fewer than 47 fires along railroad tracks through Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, Saco and Biddeford, the report found.
Rangers based that assessment on eyewitness accounts and how the timing of the fires coincided with the timing of the southbound freight train — led by locomotive No. 307 — passing through the area.
However, the report also acknowledges that subsequent inspections of the locomotive found its exhaust stack to be in compliance with Maine spark arrestor laws, and described the sparking activity as a result of “an undetermined mechanical problem.”
“During the course of the investigation, multiple witnesses were interviewed and they described the freight train as being louder than normal, making loud squealing, clacking [and] thumping sounds; sending a shower of sparks from under the train; … the wheels smelling like burning rubber and [being] very smoky. Immediately after the passage of the freight train, the fires started,” the report synopsis states, in part.
“This case was unusual in that it was not associated with a poorly maintained spark arrestor or some other mechanical failure that provides clear physical evidence,” it continued.
The investigation ruled out an Amtrak passenger train, which went through the area earlier, as a cause of the fires.
The report also lauded the work of 20 different responding fire departments, stating that “the damages could easily have been more extensive” if not for their quick reaction.
In addition to the property damages, one Saco resident was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation, while another first responder was checked at the scene for dehydration and heat exhaustion.