ELLSWORTH — A fire that initially appeared small unexpectedly grew into a full-on blaze popping out of the walls and roof of an apartment building at 65 Oak St. on Thursday afternoon, displacing four families and gutting the structure.
The construction of the building, along with gusty winds, made fighting the blaze tricky, said Ellsworth Fire Department Chief Richard Tupper.
“This building was a balloon-frame construction,” he said.
In this type of building, where boards run continuously from foundation to eaves, fire can spread vertically as well as horizontally within the walls.
“If a fire gets in that void it literally will go throughout the skeleton of the house and not even be visible until it breaks out through,” Tupper said.
There is no word yet on what may have started the blaze, Tupper said.
“I’m hopeful that they’re going to be able to give us a definitive answer,” he said.
“A lot of the structure is still standing,” said Tupper, “but the house is literally a total loss,” because of the fire damage inside the walls.
Ellsworth firefighters rushed to the scene around 2:15 p.m., where they found several of the nine tenants from the four apartments coming down the stairs.
Everyone got out safely before the flames picked up, said Tupper said. But the firefighting crew was small, he continued, and it was quickly evident they would need backup.
Mutual aid was called, as were on-call firefighters.
“At that point we’re really hoping that other people are able to leave their work, leave home, be available, that they aren’t sick,” Tupper said. “I have no idea at any given point who’s going to be available.”
Ultimately more than a dozen fire departments from around the region were called to help. Tupper said so many departments were necessary because not everyone who arrives on scene will be able to go inside to fight the fire.
“If I have turnout gear, I’m a firefighter in the public’s eye,” Tupper said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are trained, qualified.”
It could be something as simple as having a day’s worth of beard growth that could prevent a firefighter from being able to help on the inside, because a mask may not fit properly over the beard.
Tupper described a tense time in the midst of the blaze when one firefighter appeared unaccounted for and the floor was threatening to collapse in a second-floor bedroom.
Officials outside matched cards with firefighters’ faces on them to a checklist and eventually discovered everyone was there.
“It was about nine minutes,” said Tupper, “but to me it felt like three hours. We were pretty nervous.”
Firefighters were on the scene until around 7:30 p.m., said the chief, with the street blocked to traffic for several hours. By the time crews were done, foam sprayed to help fight the fire was dripping off the eaves of the house and running in rivers down the driveway to Route 1A.
Occasionally, wind would whip up foam like bath bubbles and disperse it in the air around the house.
Tupper described the foam as “kind of a high-tech soap. Just like what you use to wash grease off your dishes.”
It contains chemicals that lower the surface tension of water, which the department also uses to help fight fire. But “water will run away and it will dry out and rekindle,” Tupper said. “This helps it from doing that.”
Tupper said the solution is biodegradable, but added “I wouldn’t drink it.”
He said crews try to be careful about contamination, saying they washed hands and rinsed off gear before eating some pizza that had been delivered so they weren’t eating it.
“For years and years and years we didn’t concern ourselves with wiping our hands off,” said Tupper, and “we turn around 20 years later and wonder why all the firefighters are getting cancer.”
Reached on Friday, the building’s owner, Tony Rumsey, said he was working on his own house when he got the call.
“They called me and I said, ‘Oh my God.’” Rumsey bought the house just three years ago, he said, and spent eight months remodeling the inside.
“I bought it and I fixed it up and I remodeled it and made it all nice. I put my time, my money,” Rumsey said.
“It was lucky nobody was hurt,” said Rumsey, who also owns Sassy Nails.
Rumsey said he wasn’t sure if any of his tenants had renters insurance but that all had found places to stay, with some in nearby motels.
Several tenants who were home at the time of the blaze were taken to City Hall and treated by the Red Cross.
Rumsey said he was waiting for a call from his own insurance company on Friday.
“I hope everything will be OK,” Rumsey said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Shortly after the fire, local organizations began reaching out to help.
In a Facebook post, the nonprofit Community Closet said it was looking for items for four families in Ellsworth and one in Cherryfield that had been displaced by fire in the past two days.
“Things that are always helpful to families when they lose everything to fires are new socks, new underwear, blankets, gift cards for shoes, gift cards for gas,” said the organization’s director, Jackie Wycoff. “Always clothing and household items as well.” Wycoff said she was looking for men’s clothing in particular.
Although one firefighter was treated at Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital for a previous wound that had reopened, Tupper said he was grateful there were no serious injuries.
“It’s an imperfect world,” he said. “We try to do our best.”