Woods fire believed to have been set

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LEWISTON — Two joggers and a boater combined efforts Thursday night to battle a woods fire along a trail behind Strawberry Avenue.

Fire and police officials believe the fire was set. It was the second fire in that area in less than a month.

Fire crews were sent to the area beneath the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge shortly after 6 p.m. when thick smoke was reported rolling through the woods next to the Androscoggin River.

The first firefighters to respond had to walk a long stretch of trail to get to the area where fallen trees, leaves and other debris was burning. When they got there, the firefighters found the trio battling the flames, two with small pails of water, another man with a boat paddle.

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O’Nile Lagasse was boating on the river with his wife, Priscilla, and a pair of German shepherds when he spotted the smoke. Lagasse first paddled to the Auburn side to get someone there to call for help. He then crossed the river where he discovered the blaze getting larger.

“It was moving up the hill,” Lagasse said. “I could see flames climbing a tree.”

Lagasse paddled to the river bank and climbed on foot toward the flames. His firefighting tools: a lunch pail and an oar.

Lagasse dumped water from the river on the flames and attacked others by shoveling dirt onto the burning debris.

“All I had was this paddle or a shovel,” he said. “But it did the job.”

As he struggled with his paddle, a pair of joggers stopped to help him fight the fire. They used the pail to fetch water from the river in an attempt to douse the flames. But the fire moved quickly beneath a stirring breeze.

A roughly 60-foot section of woods burned. Ten feet above the ground, leaves on several trees had blackened and withered.

Firefighters first battled the blaze with portable tanks carried through the woods from Strawberry Avenue. Others arrived later with a forestry pump, enabling them to use a hose with water drawn from the river.

A police detective was also sent to the scene to work with Ouellette as the investigation began. It was believed the fire may have been deliberately set.

A similar fire along the same trail burned a smaller area earlier in the month. That fire also remains under investigation.

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