Cause of Andover house fire believed to be accidental

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ANDOVER — The cause of a fast-moving fire that destroyed a two-story home Thursday afternoon on Littlehale Road is believed to be accidental, Andover fire Chief Rob Dixon said Tuesday.

“It’s still under investigation, but it is not considered suspicious,” Dixon said. “It started in the kitchen.”

Firefighters from Andover and Rumford were initially sent to the fully involved structure fire discovered at 3 p.m. at Joseph Mahar’s house at 33 Littlehale Road in North Andover.

Dixon said that is out of Andover’s hydrant zone, so tankers were sought along with manpower from Dixfield and Peru. What he needed were firefighters trained for interior attacks using air packs.

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“We had plenty of water, but we were very, very limited on interior attack firefighters,” Dixon said. That’s why he didn’t call for help from Roxbury firefighters, who were about 12 miles away.

Because interior attack firefighters also work for other departments in the River Valley area, calling out Rumford and Mexico fire departments also brings out Roxbury firefighters trained to fight fires from the inside, he said.

“I called Dixfield and Peru to get relief crews,” Dixon said. As it was, he only had eight interior attack firefighters available among the 20 firefighters who answered the call for help.

On arrival at the scene about two miles from the fire station, firefighters were met with heavy smoke and fire on the first floor that extended into the second floor.

“There was an extreme delay in notification, because the subject staying there said he was watching TV and fell asleep and he slept through the working smoke detectors going off,” Dixon said.

Lynden Clarke, a friend of the family, was house-sitting for Mahar, who was in the state of Washington at the time of the fire, he said.

Clarke was saved by his dog, who woke him up.

“At that point, the smoke had banked down far enough so that he was inhaling the smoke and when I saw him in the driveway, he had black greasy soot covering his face,” Dixon said. “That’s an indication that the fire had a really good start.”

Dixon said firefighters with air packs fought the fire from a porch until more manpower and equipment arrived.

It was a 50- by 50-foot, wood-frame building with vinyl siding. Dixon said they had knockdown in 35 minutes, but on arrival it was already a total loss. He said the interior was gutted, but four walls and half the roof remained standing.

The house was insured. Clarke, who refused medical treatment and a trip to Rumford Hospital with Med-Care Ambulance, is staying with relatives, he said.

Although they achieved a quick knockdown, it took several hours to root out and extinguish hot spots. Because Dixon didn’t believe they found all the hot spots, he left a fire engine on scene for 24 hours and had a firefighter checking in through the night. That turned out to be rather fortunate.

“We had several flareups through the night,” he said. “After two to three times going in and pulling the ceiling down, we were absolutely exhausted. That’s why we had what’s called a ‘fire watch’ through the night.”

A state fire investigator came to the scene while firefighters fought the fire.

Dixon said it was raining at the time of the fire, but that didn’t hamper the efforts of firefighters or the fire itself.

“What caused the fire to expand rapidly is that (Clarke) had left the rear door open and when he discovered the fire, he ran out the front door and left it open, so the fire had plenty of oxygen,” he said.

Dixon said he was “exceptionally pleased” with the work at various skill levels of the Andover firefighters — two of whom were still in training.

“They did what they had to do to mitigate the fire, and they did it very well,” he said.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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