ROBBINSTON - The Maine Forest Service on Tuesday continued to talk with individuals who were in close proximity to a fire that charred 131 acres of forestland earlier this month. The fire burned a seasonal camp and for a time threatened other homes and camps in the area.
On Saturday, July 12, people were seen on Howard Lake in an aluminum boat. It is believed that they later went ashore and built a fire ring near a 25-year-old camp that belonged to Billie Jo Hamm and her brother Scott Johnson. The camp was about five miles from Ridge Road.
Around noon the next day, smoke was seen coming from the camp.
“We determined that the structure was burned as a result of the fire leaving the fire pit,” Jeff Currier, district ranger of the Maine Forest Service, said Tuesday.
Investigators believe that either a spark or smoldering underbrush was the cause of the fire. “Either it wasn’ t fully extinguished or maybe an ember escaped and given the dry conditions that we had, it wouldn’ t take more than a spark to get something going,” he said. “It is not uncommon for a spark or some sort of piece of coal or ember to smolder in the ground for a long period of time. [There have been] fires that weren’ t completely extinguished and that held over for a week or sometimes more without erupting.”
Several people have been interviewed. “We have identified some of the names of those, but we are still looking for a few others so we can interview them as potential witnesses if nothing else in this incident,” Currier said.
The rangers hope to complete those interviews by the end of this week.
Once the investigation is complete, there could be charges, Currier said, because state laws were broken including building a fire without an open burn permit.
“If you have a campfire, what we call a cooking and warming fire, on your own property then you do not need an open burn permit,” he explained. “What we have to determine is if there were people there at that camp and they weren’ t the property owners and they had a campfire. Without that permit they are in violation. … So there are potential charges there regardless if the fire was extinguished or not.”
It is also a violation of state law to not properly extinguish a fire, Currier added. “The law states that every fire built has to be 100 percent extinguished before anybody leaves,” he said.
The fire is now under control. The area is still being monitored.
“Once a day we will either walk around the fire and look things over or if we have an airplane on an air detection route we will ask the pilots to fly over,” he said.
Rain that at times has pounded the area has helped. “The rainfall we have received recently has been beneficial not only to the fire, but to the entire area. It has knocked the fire danger back,” the district ranger added.
Currier estimated that damages could be in the several hundred-thousand dollar range given the replacement value of the camp, the loss of timber and the suppression costs.
Earlier, Currier had estimated the suppression costs at around $40,000 but they could go higher.
Robbinston Fire Chief Bob Merrill said Monday this was one of the worst fires he had seen in his 32 years as a firefighter.
“This was quite an event for the town of Robbinston, seven full days of firefighting operations out there. It did jump the fire line on the fourth day, but as of Saturday night — on the seventh day — we transitioned from firefighting to patrol status,” Merrill said.
The fire chief said there would be no fire permits until the area gets more rain, Firefighters also will be on patrol. “Myself and others will be patrolling the remote locations to make sure that people aren’ t having these camp fires,” he said.
Merrill had high praise for the Maine Forest Service. “When the Legislature sits in again they need to be looking at continued funding or increasing it for the forestry service because the work the men and women do out there for us is an investment,” he said. “They save money in the long run because I can tell you right now that fire quickly overwhelmed all local resources.”
The chief said that numerous people helped out behind the scene. “Doug and Cathy Diffin of the Strawberry Patch in Perry provided the lion share of the meals for us,” he said. He said The Salvation Army of Portland had its truck on-site and provided meals and drinks, as did several Calais businesses. He also praised Wayne and Anita Johnson who allowed the fire command post to be set up on their property. “They did a lot of running and made a lot of phone calls for us. They made the effort a little bit easier,” he said.