Auburn woods scorched


AUBURN – For the second straight day, dark smoke floated over the Twin Cities as a woods fire burned out of control, this time on Kittyhawk Avenue.

At least two veteran firefighters described the afternoon blaze as among the most dramatic they had seen in decades of service.

Fire that started in the grass next to the railroad tracks quickly spread to nearby trees and flames were shooting up to 50 feet in the air at times.

“When we got there, the fire was crowning. It was traveling at the tops of the trees,” said platoon Chief Paul Blanchard. “That’s not a good thing.”

Firefighters from Auburn and nearby towns battled for hours trying to keep the flames from spreading through the trees and over to Foster Road where houses sat in the path of destruction.

Fire crews initially believed the fire would stop at a 40-foot-wide bog between Kittyhawk and the residential area of Foster Road. However, persistent fire fueled by strong winds soon put an end to that hope as flames spread from one tree to the next.

“We knew if it got to the bog, it might reach Foster Road. And the fire did make it across,” said Fire Prevention Officer Lt. Gary Simard. “If it had gone any further, they would have had to evacuate some people.”

Fire crews stopped the flames before it reached any houses. However, as they got one area under control, they had to turn their attention to others.

“We’d start to get ahead of it and then we’d see another spot going up,” Simard said.

The fire was reported at about 1 p.m. when engineers on a passing train saw grass burning near the tracks across from the airport runway. The engineers called for help, unhitched some of the cars and moved them out of the path of the fire.

Firefighters were at the scene minutes later, but the fire had already spread to the trees with the wind blowing the flames.

“When the fire department got there, there was already an acre burning and the wind was moving it right along,” Simard said. “There were trees 30, 40 and 50 feet high and they were on fire. I’ve never seen trees go up like that in my 27 years here.”

A crew from the Maine Forestry Service flew to Auburn in a helicopter to dump water from the air. However, by the time they arrived, the wind had shifted and firefighters on the ground had begun to get the blaze under control. One Forestry Service warden told Blanchard he could not recall seeing a woods fire spread out of control so fast and so dramatically.

It was estimated that seven acres of land burned. Auburn firefighters remained on Kittyhawk Avenue until 7 p.m., dousing hot spots to keep the flames from flaring up again.

Simard was investigating the cause of the blaze and hoping for rain. Fire officials have been saying for weeks that fire danger will remain high until the area is soaked by a substantial rainfall.