Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008, had been a quiet day without activity for the 34 paid-on-call members of the Paris, ME, Fire Department. The temperature was in the high 20s with relatively clear skies and the county had yet been spared a significant snow storm.
Chief Brad Frost was in his office doing myriad chores, not something new for him. Reports, inspections, maintenance; it doesn't get any easier as the town moves right along in the mainstream of the 21st century. For a small community of 4,900 people, covering a geographic area of 65 square miles, the number of runs this year had increased markedly, fast approaching 300 calls. The majority of the calls are considered the norm for the fire service, consisting of chimney fires, car fires, alarms in buildings, and the motor vehicle crashes that occur frequently on the busy Route 26, a major route for travelers moving between points to the north, including Montreal, Canada, on down into the greater Portland area on the Atlantic Ocean, a good 50 miles from Paris.
All of this was about to change in a hurry that day. In fact, the entire southern, central and western counties of Maine were going to get a wake-up call that things were not going well for some of their brethren.
At 1:15 P.M., the Oxford County Regional Communication Center received a telephone call from a man employed by the New England Public Warehouse (NEPW) at 164 Pine St. in Paris. He was reporting a fire in a bale of hay on the exterior of the building with the possibility of interior fire extension. The alarm was toned out and Frost headed down Western Avenue. The first-alarm assignment for a structure fire in Norway, Oxford or Paris mandates an automatic response from all three towns, an efficient way to ensure there are at least a couple of pieces of apparatus rolling in a short period. (In putting this article together, it became obvious that towns in this area are adept at managing their resources in a forthright fashion.)
Enroute to the fire scene, responding companies monitored a report from a sheriff's unit of "heavy smoke showing" on Pine Street. The deputy sheriff didn't clarify whether it was inside or outside the building, but this initial report gave notice to the firefighters headed down Route 26 that it might be time to buckle down and get ready to rock and roll. Little did they know.
Frost drove his vehicle onto the NEPW property and headed down the left (B) side of the long building toward the rear of the property and the loading dock, the location of the reported incident. He encountered heavy smoke along a considerable portion of the structure, giving rise to thoughts that it was more than a bale of hay that was about to get all of their attention. On a positive note, the 15 or so employees present at the time the fire was discovered had all exited the building and retreated to a safe location — this would not have been a good time to be forced into a primary search mode.
The crew on Paris Engine 3 ran a 2½-inch handline toward the fire and soon depleted the supply tank on their rig. A Norway engine dropped a five-inch feeder in from Pine Street and tied into the Paris piece, a lay of about 1,000 feet. Another feeder was run from Paris Engine 3 to their ladder truck, a 1,500-gpm quint, as they readied for the likelihood of master stream operations. Paris Engine 3 remained at its original position and supplied water for 95 hours without interruption. The all-out was declared at 12:30 P.M. on Sunday.
With developing conditions that were not going to be controlled any time soon, mutual aid was summoned in a hurry in the form of the Mechanic Falls ladder truck (they also sent an engine company). Additional engines were summoned from Bridgton, Buckfield, Harrison, Hebron, Minot, New Gloucester, Otisfield, Waterford and West Paris. Poland sent a heavy rescue with a rapid intervention team.
Oxford Engine 2, a 1,250-gpm pumper with Captain Shawn Cordwell in command, had a run of nearly seven miles to reach the scene. The crew arrived, parked on side A, and walked out back to report to Frost with air bottles and hand tools. Upon entering the building to attempt a size-up, they encountered very heavy smoke conditions with no visibility. The men had 150 feet of search rope attached to them as their safety line, but in short order, they realized the danger of advancing farther, given that the property contained scores of huge rolls of paper, each likely weighing better than a ton, without the additional hazard of soaking them with hoselines.
Cordwell retreated from the building with his crew and sought out Frost to discuss imminent measures. The Paris chief asked the captain to take over as his Operations officer, allowing the chief to move around the fireground as incident commander and to get a better handle on how much the fire had extended in the structure.
With the total lack of visibility within the building, it was almost a given that master streams and defensive operations were going to be the order of the day, and this day was going to run into three. The fire building covered 1.2 million square feet, creating a nightmare in terms of covering the structure in the event the fire took full possession of the building. It was essentially a concrete block structure with a lightweight metal-truss roof, a severe liability should the trusses be compromised by radiant heat and super-heated convection currents swirling about at ceiling level. This would become an issue before long.
Adding to the problem of ventilation was the roof covering, built with multiple layers of heavy wood planking and several coats of rubber roofing. Companies reported the roof was 14 inches thick in some areas. Members worked diligently with power saws and did manage to vent, but the solid materials precluded doing a trench cut given the dimensions of the structure and pertinent time factors. The building was sprinklered; however, as portions of the interior of the building collapsed, said sprinkler system was rendered inoperable early on. As it was, the lightweight roof trusses did come down on top of the railcars, creating another gross hazard for any units that may have considered an interior attack from the point at which the railcars entered the fire building.
With rolls of paper in row upon row, stacked one upon another, it was virtually impossible to reach the seat of the fire with large hoselines and protect the roof from within. In addition, the life safety hazard imposed upon the firefighters by the threat of the paper rolls falling once they were soaked through eliminated any chance for attack crews to get into the building and effect extinguishment.
Further compounding the situation were six railcars parked in the loading dock area with two of them loaded full of paper material, two others half full and the remaining two in the process of being unloaded. The property contained 20,000 tons of paper pulp that arrived routinely via rail from Canada. Getting water into those cars was next to impossible, adding to the high heat and smoke conditions that thwarted much of the effort to slow this fire down.
Working at side C of the building, Frost elected to move the command post to side A and the main parking lot, a location much more feasible for responding fire companies. The chief also requested the Oxford County Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT), an assignment that included six members with incident command skills. Two fully equipped vehicles responded, one from the Rumford Fire Department and the second provided by MedCare Ambulance, both county-funded incident command rigs. The units were positioned on the A/B corner of the fire building, the northeast side.
When the IMAT vehicle arrived, Frost asked Cordwell to relocate to the Rumford command vehicle and continue his role as Operations officer. The Oxford County Regional Communication Center sent radio dispatcher Joe Cormier to the command post to handle communications from the IMAT unit. Issues such as water supply, fuel requirements, hydrant assignments, apparatus placement of mutual aid companies and rehabilitation facilities were crucial. Cordwell called for a tower ladder and engine from Gray, Auburn's 102-foot tower ladder, and ladder companies from Bridgton, Dixfield, Newry and Rumford. The Dixfield and Newry ladders responded a distance of 30 miles or better, and they were staged in reserve at the fire scene.
EMA's Vital Role
Another important supporting factor in the successful deployment of resources was the Oxford County Emergency Management Agency, under the direction of Scott Parker. His department manages crucial needs for 36 towns and 19 unorganized townships, a large responsibility in emergency services. Early in the incident, Teresa Inman, administrative assistant, positioned herself in the command post and began recording every activity that took place in terms of logistics. This information was invaluable as command monitored and used the manpower and equipment at its disposal. Senior fire officials later commended this vital role and the positive effect it played in their operations.
Water Supply Issues
Water supply became a crucial concern early on as the command post started to put master streams into play. Engine companies laid more than 2,500 feet of five-inch hose to six hydrants, and after four hours or so of fire operations, the Paris Water District reported that town reservoirs supplying Paris, Norway and Oxford were going to soon be depleted. Some 1.5 million gallons of water had been pumped into the fire building. A dependable water supply was selected at the Little Androscoggin River on Route 119, the Buckfield Road.
Additional engines were requested from Bridgton, Greene, Livermore, Livermore Falls, Raymond and Turner. These units dropped four lines of five-inch hose for 3,500 feet to the river. Adding to the water supply issue was the fact these four lines were on a 40-foot gradient in the slope of the land. Pumpers from Casco, Naples, Raymond and Sabattus also responded for supplemental pumping. All told, more than six miles of large-diameter hose (LDH) was dropped during this incident. Route 26 was largely shut down for a few hours while the hydrant system was used.
When companies started the drafting procedures from the river source, 12 engines set up in relay and pumped into four big lines, laid three-quarters of a mile up Pine Street beyond Market Square and easterly to the Little Androscoggin, letting police open much of Route 26 to traffic. In terms of water supplied to the fireground in the first six hours of firefighting, 1.6 million gallons of water were pumped onto the fire. All told, 4.5 million gallons of water were supplied to the fireground.
After roughly four hours of fire operations, a request was made for apparatus and manpower to respond from every fire department in Oxford and Androscoggin counties. Not too much later, the same request was made for a task force from Cumberland County. Units from Baldwin, Gorham, Sebago and Standish all sent equipment to cover empty stations in Paris and Oxford. At the height of the fire, close to 200 firefighters were working the scene. Relief units required massive movements of manpower and equipment. A number of firefighters stayed all day and through the night in the effort to suppress this blaze.
On the second day of the fire, a Maine Forestry Department helicopter provided an aerial overview of the fire building for command. The members used a thermal imaging camera to assess any threat the fire still imposed to their forces. Two excavators were brought in to remove the light-truss roofing, much of which had collapsed onto the railcars at the height of the fire. Five of the six railcars were removed by locomotive, while the last railcar was taken out by an excavator. Structural engineers were brought in to assess the inherent danger to all forces working at the scene, another important task facing fire officials. Also, train representatives were summoned to the scene to assist in removing the railcars expediently. Two large excavators were used to commence with moving much of the heavy material and to open the roof to a point where this could be done with reasonably safety, all the while with master streams operating into the building.
Keys to Success
All told, this was a logistical nightmare in terms of tangible requirements. Apparatus responses, staging areas, road access to vital points and water supply, maintenance of all motorized units, nourishment of firefighters and police units, and the list goes on. Some would question the need for 53 towns to respond to a structure fire that, in reality, posed little threat to neighboring buildings. However, this fire lasted until Sunday afternoon, when all but a token number of units were released.
During this entire incident, with sub-freezing weather conditions hampering their efforts, only one firefighter suffered any injury, that being a foot fracture from falling on the ice. This writer firmly believes that responsible officials in Maine did a noble job of effective incident command and control, strategy and tactics. One thing is for certain: if you need the equipment and you have not made sure it is there and available, you have failed. We in the fire service have, among others, a motto that says, "To Serve And Protect." In this case, from Chief Brad Frost on down the list, they performed admirably.
WALTER PUTNAM is a retired captain in the Salem, NH, Fire Department. He has written several incident reports for Firehouse®.
|TIMELINE||New England Public Warehouse, Paris, ME|
|Dec. 3, 2008|
|1:15 P.M.||First alarm of fire, Paris responding|
|1:23||Engine from Oxford to the fire|
|1:36||Paris chief requesting Hebron, West Paris and Buckfield to Paris station to cover|
|1:37||Norway requesting Waterford fire for station coverage|
|1:38||Emergency Management Agency notified that multiple departments now operating at fire in Paris|
|2:38||Bethel engine requested to cover West Paris station|
|1:39||Paris command requesting ladder from Mechanic Falls and rescue company from Poland|
|2:40||Gray aerial tower to fire scene|
|2:44||Gray engine to the fire|
|2:13||Aerial tower from Auburn|
|2:30||New Gloucester engine to cover Oxford station|
|2:34||State fire marshal notified|
|2:48||Minot engine to cover Paris station|
|2:50||West Paris engine to scene|
|3:08||Ladders from Newry, Dixfield and Rumford|
|3:10||Ladder from Bridgton|
|3:11||Rumford Car 1 enroute to Paris fire scene|
|3:13||New Gloucester engine to the fire|
|5:08||Mexico fire with cascade system|
|5:21||Stoneham engine requested to Norway for coverage|
|5:26||Naples engine enroute to fire|
|5:39||Turner and Greene engines responding to Paris fire|
|5:40||Livermore and Livermore Falls engines enroute to Paris for station coverage|
|5:46||Woodstock engine enroute to Paris fire|
|5:46||Poland and Raymond sending apparatus to fire scene|
|6:10||Woodstock engine and squad enroute to Paris station|
|Dec. 4, 2008|
|8:04 A.M.||Request for 8 engines w/manpower to scene; all departments in Oxford County toned out for standby|
|8:15||Otisfield engine responding to fire scene|
|8:16||Mexico engine enroute to fire scene|
|8:19||Cumberland County Strike Team advised availability|
|8:25||Andover engine respond to fire scene|
|8:26||Cumberland County Strike Team enroute; all Cumberland County units advised to go to Paris FD for assignment|
|8:28||Franklin County requested to provide mutual aid to Paris|
|8:30||Sumner requested for mutual aid assignment|
|8:30||Regional Dispatch Director Miclon advised Paris command as to resource availability|
|8:34||Stoneham, Greenwood, Denmark, requested for mutual aid assignment|
|8:40||Fryeburg Fire Department standing by at its station for assignment|
|8:49||Request for all Androscoggin County departments to be toned out and placed on stand-by at their respective stations|
|8:52||Wilton, Jay, Byron and Farmington apparatus enroute to cover at Paris station|
|11:23||York County advised their IMAT vehicle available if needed|
|1:38 P.M.||Mexico engine enroute to fire scene|
|1:40||Woodstock engine enroute to fire scene|
|1:59||Canton engine enroute to fire scene|