Wind whips fires

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TURNER – A teenager playing with fireworks Wednesday is suspected of starting a fire that burned at least 30 acres of woods off Fern Street in Turner.

In Auburn, five acres burned between Court Street and Minot Avenue as firefighters struggled to keep the flames away from nearby homes. Similar fires were being battled in at least four other nearby towns late Wednesday afternoon.

The massive afternoon blaze in Turner threatened houses and power lines as fire crews from nearly a dozen departments battled to bring it under control.

Smoke from the fire could be seen and smelled as far away as Lewiston as gusting winds carried it for miles to the south.

Firefighters battled the fire from tote roads as the flames swept further along the power lines, engulfing trees and fallen limbs as it went.

It appeared the fire started roughly 75 feet from the back of a trailer on Fern Street. Children from that home attempted to fight the fire with buckets of water, while others from neighboring homes brought out hoses in an attempt to keep the flames away from their property.

“It was just a little fire at first,” said 13-year-old Brandy Sylvester, who filled empty milk jugs with water and tried to douse the flames. “It got big real fast. The wind kept blowing it and blowing it.”

The fire began burning at about 3 p.m. roughly a mile down Fern Street from Route 4. Witnesses said there are several sheds and shacks in the woods and that they were believed to have burned.

“When I came up over the hill, I said, whoa!’ It was right in my boy’s backyard,” said George Spear, who lives further down Fern Street. “I seen the flames getting closer to his house and I knew we had to do something.”

Spear said at one point the flames were shooting almost as high as the power lines, roughly 30 feet overhead. He and other family members began attacking the fire with garden hoses and then Spear went to a hardware store to get more.

Firefighters on the ground were assisted by crews who dumped water from a helicopter as trees and grass continued to burn. Flames burned down one side of the power lines and then swept to the tall grass and trees on the other side.

In some areas, trees were blackened from the fire 20 feet off the ground. Along a tote road next to the power lines, Spear’s family and other neighbors dampened down the blackened earth to keep embers from reigniting.

Meanwhile, further south along the power lines, Turner firefighters and crews from area towns used portable water tanks and tanker trucks in an attempt to stop the blaze in its tracks. Crews also used two bulldozers to create fire breaks to keep the flames from spreading.

“The number of towns that came to help out was phenomenal,” said Turner fire Chief Steve Fish.

By 4:30 p.m., crews had the biggest flames extinguished. What remained was a blackened wasteland of flattened, burned grass on either side of the power lines. The fire had burned through the tall grass and smaller trees were still burning. In one area roughly a half mile from Fern Street, what appeared to be a shed was reduced to a charred heap.

“Every now and then, you see another big cloud of smoke come up,” Spear said.

Maine State Police charged a 16-year-old Turner boy with possession of fireworks in connection with the blaze. Investigators said the teen was lighting firecrackers behind his house when the grass caught fire and quickly spread to the woods.

In Auburn, at least a half dozen people called the fire department in that city to report seeing and smelling smoke. In most instances, it was learned that the callers had been smelling smoke blowing in from Turner.

However, at about 3:30 p.m., another woods fire was reported behind the new Pinnacle Heights development off Court Street.

Auburn fire crews, which already had three trucks helping in Turner, scrambled to keep flames from sweeping from the woods to the homes on either side of it.

“This one had a lot of potential,” said Auburn Fire Prevention Officer Lt. Gary Simard. “There are a lot of houses nearby.”

Firefighters from Lisbon and Mechanic Falls went to Auburn to help battle that blaze. The fire burned through grass, dead wood and trees as it ripped through the wooded area between Russell Avenue and Pinnacle Heights.

Simard, who was investigating the blaze, suspected a spark from an all-terrain vehicle may have ignited the fire. However, he was expecting to investigate the cause into Thursday morning.

Other grass fires were snuffed out on Danville Corner and Stone roads in Auburn earlier in the day. By late afternoon, Auburn had no spare firefighters to assist at another woods fire in the area of Witham Road in New Gloucester. Other fires were burning in Norway, Lovell and Bethel at about the same time.

Earlier in the day, around the same time the fire started in Turner, Greene fire crews called for mutual aid in that town for a woods fire. However, Greene fire crews got the blaze under control and called off the other departments.

In most area cities and towns, fire chiefs were paging volunteers and asking them to remain on standby late Wednesday afternoon and into the evening.

Four hours after firefighters responded to the woods fire in Turner crews remained at the scene, dousing hot spots and making sure whipping winds would not reignite the flames.

“We’re just mopping up right now and that’s the hard part,” said Chief Fish. “We’ll be keeping an eye on it through the night. We don’t want it starting back up again, especially with this wind.”

Firefighters having been saying for weeks that dry conditions have created an extreme danger for woods fires. No substantial rain was in the forecast until Sunday.

“What we need,” Simard said, “is a really good downpour.”

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