FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — The week started like any other for the tight-knit Fort Fairfield community. But by the end of Tuesday, two women died, and their residences burned to the ground for reasons that are still unclear.
Investigators said they believe 90-year-old Dawn Findlen and 39-year-old Hope Phillips to be the victims of the fires on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, though their bodies have yet to be positively identified by the Maine medical examiner’s office.
The Maine fire marshal’s office, which is leading the investigation, has ruled the causes of the fires to be undetermined, and it is unknown if the fires were related to the heating systems of the respective houses.
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said that due to the extensive damage the fires did to the buildings, there is going to be “great difficulty” in uncovering the causes of the flames.
According to her obituary, Findlen, formerly of Presque Isle, had a long-running education career in The County. After working in the Caribou school system, she spent the bulk of her career as a guidance counselor at Presque Isle High School.
Findlen, who lived alone in her farmhouse on Densmore Road after her husband died in January of last year, is survived by three sons, four grandchildren and one great-grandson, along with several nieces and nephews.
Those who knew Findlen filled her obituary page with well-wishes. They especially praised her work as a guidance counselor.
“One of my fondest memories is of Dawn, day-after-day, walking beside students on their way to a new class. She didn’t just send them on their own, she accompanied them and introduced them to their new teacher,” Fran Barter wrote in a comment on the obituary page. “The world was a better place with her in it.”
Hope Phillips lived in a home on Sam Everett Road with her long-time boyfriend, Jeffrey Chasse, and their two dogs. Chasse was not home when the fire occurred, but the two dogs died in the fire.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Phillips lists her as being from Houlton and studying at Northern Maine Community College. She was the daughter of the late Paul Phillips, whose work helped the Aroostook Band of Micmacs achieve federal recognition in 1991.
Phillips’ obituary said she was survived by her mother, four children, and one granddaughter, as well as several brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.
Brittany Pelletier, a friend of Phillips, said it was awful that such an “amazing” person would die in such a tragic way.
“She was a loving and sweet, kind soul,” Pelletier said. “She would help anyone and everyone if she could.”
On Thursday, firefighters from North Lakes Fire and the Easton Fire Department drove to Fort Fairfield to “show support to a department in need.”
Without announcement, the group showed up at the headquarters of Fort Fairfield Fire Department, and helped evaluate the equipment in the aftermath of the fires.
Fort Fairfield firefighters were also provided with chop suey from Fort Fairfield Police Chief Shawn Newell, sandwiches from Aroostook County Administrator Ryan Pelletier and sweets from Fort Fairfield Town Manager Andrea Powers.
As for residents, many were shocked by two tragedies befalling the town in just one week.
“It’s sad that an older person like that, 90 years old, has to die in a house fire,” said Vaida Doody, who knew Findlen.
While residents said it did not make them feel unsafe within their homes, for many it increased the importance of keeping chimneys clean and heating systems monitored in the wintertime.
“It’s tragic, especially when you lose somebody in them,” Heather Fox said. “But it’s part of the winter.”
Doody was optimistic that the tightly knit 3,000-plus strong Fort Fairfield community would support everyone affected.
“I think a small community bounces back. You rally around people who need you and need your help,” Doody said. “A bigger community, you don’t even know that person.”
A funeral for Phillips will be held at Bowers Funeral Home at 10 Water St. in Houlton, with visitation beginning at 11 a.m. and the service at 1 p.m. Tuesday. She will be buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Houlton.
A celebration of life for Findlen will be held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 170 Main St., in Fort Fairfield, with a visitation beginning at noon Saturday. She will be buried at Green Ridge Cemetery in Caribou.