An Old Town firefighter puts away gear after a call in downtown Old Town, Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Back-to-back fatal fires on the same day this week are further evidence that Maine is seeing an uptick in fires as 2022 gets underway.

It’s an uptick that the state saw last year as people spending more time at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic had more opportunities to start fires, and it’s a trend that hasn’t let up, according to the state fire marshal.

The fires on Monday in homes in Sabattus and Hampden claimed two lives, bringing the total number of fire fatalities last month to three. At the start of the month, a house fire in Chelsea killed a 95-year-old woman.

Those three deaths followed the deadliest year for fires in recent memory last year, when 27 people were killed in 23 fires, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Last year also included the deadliest single fire since 2016, when three people were killed after a house on Union Street in Bangor caught fire in early December.

The three deaths last month, as well as the number of fire scenes state investigators have been called to so far this year, are putting 2022 on a course similar to 2021, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said.

“We saw an uptick, definitely, last year,” he said, “and I would say what we’ve seen so far is a continuation of that.”

The uptick can’t be attributed to one specific cause, but the three main causes for fires have to do with heating, cooking and smoking. The state typically sees more fires during the winter months, when the heat is on.

The fire marshal’s office is still gathering and finalizing numbers for 2021, but with only two-thirds of fire departments reporting data, there were more than 130,000 calls for service across the state, Thomas said.

That already dwarfs the figure for 2020, when all of the state’s fire departments received 119,434 calls for service.

Aside from the volume of calls, something else that set 2021 apart was that 10 of 23 fatal fires happened during the daytime, Thomas said.

“Usually, fatal fires happen at night when people are asleep, so we look at it from the standpoint that with the pandemic, more people are working remotely, more people are home,” he said. “Consequently, they are doing the things that can cause a fire more often during the day.”

The fire marshal’s office has been tasked with investigating 57 fires so far this year. That work is largely shared by 12 investigators who have been working nonstop since Jan. 1, Thomas said.

“They’re exhausted,” he said. “You’ve got people out there in the middle of the night in the backwoods of the state, driving around after they’ve worked all day and investigated a fire all night and, you know, I’m concerned for their safety.”

Typically, the fire marshal’s office investigates about 500 fires a year, Thomas said. That puts January well above the office’s average of about 42 fires per month.

“Somebody can leave Kittery in the morning and wind up in Fort Kent,” he said.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...