After a fire last month on Peaks Island destroyed two homes, a boat, and a car, a group of islanders are trying to ensure it does not happen again.
The May 27 fire brought attention to infrastructure issues on the island that could make properties more vulnerable to fires, including spotty cellular service, few hydrants in some areas, and an accumulation of flammable brush. Residents have launched an effort to tackle the issues, but costs, private property constraints, and the inconvenient nature of island life present obstacles.
Randy Schaeffer, one of those concerned about the island’s fire-prevention infrastructure, summarized the concerns in a post late last month on the NextDoor social media site. He specifically mentioned cell phone dead zones; the fire risk in the island’s woodlands; the number, location, and functionality of fire hydrants, and the reliability of firefighting equipment.
The post spurred conversation on topics like creating an emergency evacuation plan, while some participants shared anecdotes about fire hydrants that have not worked during past fires.
“This is an ambitious, yet essential list,” Schaeffer wrote. “It will take broad and sustained community involvement to get the city to address these concerns.”
During an interview last week, Schaeffer emphasized he is not critical of firefighters. He said he believes they did a “fantastic job with the resources they had to work with” on May 27.
Authorities did not determine the cause of the fire at the 4 Highland Ave. home of Mary and Biff Herbert, Portland Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Goodall said last week. He said the extent of the damage made it “impossible to conclude” what started the fire.
Goodall also said while “apparently there were some minor injuries sustained” in the fire, he was not at liberty to discuss what they were. He said the victim refused assessment or transport to a hospital.
He also confirmed one of the homes destroyed in the fire was an unoccupied vacation home.
According to a GoFundMe page created last week, longtime island residents the Herberts lost their home, car, boat, and possessions in the fire, and Biff suffered “minor burns” escaping the house; Mary was not inside at the time.
Goodall said Peaks Island has had “three fairly significant fires” in the past year. By the time firefighters were notified this time, he said, the buildings were completely engulfed and there was not much anyone could do to save the structures.
Attention was then turned to protecting the surrounding area from further damage because flames had spread into the woods and ash and embers were falling nearby.
In general, Goodall said, whenever there is a fire on Peaks, the Fire Department automatically sends fire crews from the mainland via the fireboat and pages the Community Emergency Response Team that includes trained volunteers. There is also a firefighter stationed at the Peaks police station at all times.
He said Peaks Island has 14 volunteers who are trained as firefighters.
Firefighters adjust their typical procedures when fighting fires on Peaks, Goodall said, including using a pumper truck that carries more water and twice the amount of hose as trucks on the mainland. Such changes are necessary, he said, because there is “considerable distance” between fire hydrants in some areas of the island, as well as water supply issues.
Goodall said crews who fought the fire at the Herberts’ property did an “excellent job.”
‘A proverbial onion’
When island resident George Purtell saw the Herberts’ house on fire last week, he did what most people would do: tried to call 911 on his cell phone.
But he had no service.
Purtell previously saw cellular dead zones on the island as a minor inconvenience, he said in an interview last week. But the May 27 fire made him realize that without cell service, anyone encountering an emergency on Peaks would have to use a landline to call for help, which would add to the time it takes to get emergency responders to the scene.
He had to drive home to report the recent fire.
“If someone’s hiking, it could take them 10 or 15 minutes to get to someplace (where they could) make a call,” Purtell said. “Obviously a lot of damage and personal harm could come from that.”
Scott Kelley, a Peaks resident for 20 years, echoed Purtell’s opinion and said many aging islanders who moved to Peaks decades ago as young, healthy people are now questioning what would happen if they have a medical emergency in the middle of the night.
Kelley is also concerned about the accumulation of brush on the island – logs, tree trunks, and leaves that could catch fire and quickly spread flames, especially if winds are strong.
Maine’s recent drought conditions have exacerbated the fire risk, he said.
Removal of the brush, however, could be difficult because of the remote location of Peaks and a large amount of privately owned land on the island.
In the past, Kelley said, volunteers could just remove brush where it was overgrown, but brush on private property, some of which hasn’t been visited for years by its owners, complicates the issue.
Kelley said he thinks there should be an ordinance requiring landowners to remove brush, although that raises the question of where the brush would go – there is no place to put it on Peaks and taking it off the island and paying a crew to break it down would cost thousands of dollars.
Kelley also said brush-clearing is further complicated because the city is “one of the largest landowners on the island” and a lot of land is also protected as part of the Peaks Island Land Preserve.
“It’s the proverbial onion, layer after layer after layer,” he said. “Out here the layers just become bigger and more complicated.”
Kelley, Purtell, and Schaeffer said they plan to contact the Maine Forest Service to see if an island-wide assessment is possible to determine the accumulation of deadwood and where there are “critical areas.” An assessment is important, Schaeffer said, before moving forward with efforts at City Hall.
Even if they were to start clearing the brush now, however, Kelley said he believes it would take years to complete the job.
Schaeffer also said most of the island’s hydrants exist on the front, or harbor, side of the island, not in the more densely wooded area known as Tollman Heights in the middle of Peaks, or on the backside, facing Casco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
He is also concerned about public education for island residents about what could exacerbate fires on the island.
Schaeffer said he has been looking into the possibility of working with Washington, D.C.-based Firewise USA, which works to prevent wildfires. He said Firewise has already done work on Cushing and Great Diamond islands, as well as other islands along the Maine coast.
Because the May 27 blaze focused new attention on island fire safety and residents just started organizing, Schaeffer said he has not spoken with District 1 City Councilor Belinda Ray. But eventually, he said, he would like to take the discussion to the City Council.
Having additional council representation for Portland’s islands, he added – which some Charter Commission candidates advocated – would be helpful. It is crucial that public interest in the island’s fire-prevention infrastructure persist, he added, even as time passes after the recent, devastating fire on Highland Avenue.
“We have to be realistic and understand you can’t cure decades of neglect in a year,” he said. “This is something that has to start now and it has to continue.”
Fire-relief fund exceeds initial goal
More than $80,000 has been raised for the two victims of a May 27 fire on Peaks Island.
Grace Noonan-Kaye, a friend of Mary and Biff Herbert, organized a GoFundMe page for the longtime island residents. It had an initial goal of $80,000 that was increased to $128,000 after exceeding 470 donors and 1,000 shares by the end of last week.
The money will help the family rebuild their multi-generational home.
“We hope to alleviate some of the stress they will face as they begin to rebuild,” the donation page says. “We seek to get them resettled as soon as possible.”
The GoFundMe page said the Herberts were born and raised in Maine. Mary worked as a nurse for 48 years at Maine Medical Center and Biff worked at L.L. Bean and for the city of Portland.
In an email on June 4, Noonan-Kaye said the Herberts have declined all requests to talk with the press.
Their daughter, Kate Herbert, tweeted “the house is a total loss. Please if you are able, donate to the GoFundMe as we try to get them back on their feet.”
The fundraising page said the Herberts “are moved to tears by your kind words of encouragement and ongoing support.”
On June 5, volunteers arrived early to dig through the rubble. They looked for photos, mementos, and anything else that was not burned in the fire.
Nathan Contant, a Casco Bay Lines employee, found Mary’s wedding ring and her Portland High School graduation ring. Other finds included family photos and a wedding photo.
“We appreciate (the Herberts’) years of island kindness and lending a quiet, private hand in our times of need,” the GoFundMe page said. “This is our chance to support them in their time of need.”
— Ilana Williams