Fourteen fires across the state over the last week have left two people dead and at least 19 people homeless, including seven people burned out of a home in Machiasport and six in Limington.
The fatalities occurred in Rumford and Mattawamkeag. Jane Bubar, 73, died on the first floor of a three-story building in Rumford on Dec. 16 and a 59-year-old woman, Robin Stratton, died in a single-family home in Mattawamkeag on Saturday night, Maine State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said.
It is not unusual to have bursts of fires around the state in December, when people start using faulty heating systems. Typically, alternative heating devices, such as kerosene heaters or electric stoves, are set too close to sources of combustion, like blankets or cloth furniture. Or, grime left in insufficiently cleaned burners and chimneys catches fire, Thomas said.
“These fire causes usually have some human fingerprint attached to them, some action that should have been taken, or inaction,” Thomas said Monday. “When you have a chimney fire that spreads into the attic, you have to assume that creosote buildup had a hand in it because somebody didn’t run a brush up into their chimneys.”
The causes of the fatal fires will be logged as undetermined due to the accumulation of debris around the victims, Thomas said.
Of the 13 fires, Thomas said, four — in Medway, St. Francis, Cherryfield and Solon — occurred in vehicles. The rest — in Alton, Glenburn, Harrison, Limington, Machiasport, Searsport, South Portland and Stacyville — were at apartments, mobile homes or houses. The American Red Cross of Maine reported assisting 17 people displaced by fires over the weekend, plus several people affected by a Friday fire in North Waterboro, said Kristen Simas, a senior disaster program manager with the Red Cross.
The Red Cross increased the number of fires the organization has contended with when it added a Corinna blaze that occurred on Monday. One person was displaced, the group said.
“Home fires can be devastating, and we’ve seen an increase in these disasters with the cold weather,” Simas said.
The Machiasport fire, which left seven people homeless, began with a short-circuit in wiring in a crawlspace between an attic and roof that quickly spread. A next-door neighbor called 911 to report it at about 7 p.m. on Saturday after a resident of the 2 ½-story home smelled smoke and ran to the neighbor’s home while the other five occupants fought the fire with buckets of water, Machiasport Fire Chief Dave Nielsen said.
Firefighters usually don’t encourage residents to fight fires on their own, but “in this particular case it was probably a fair idea,” Nielsen said.
“They probably saved a lot of the house. It could have been a whole lot worse,” Nielsen added. “They could have lost the whole house, but right now the house is repairable.”
About 20 firefighters from East Machias, Machiasport, Machias and Jonesport fought the fire, Nielsen said.
Simas and Thomas encouraged residents to check smoke alarms, prepare escape routes from homes and set at least a three-foot distance between heat sources and anything flammable to ensure a safe holiday.