Firefighters contained a 3-acre woods fire on the east shore of Long Reach after a three-day effort complicated by dry conditions and a remote location.
A resident of the Doughty Point area reported the fire at about 12:30 p.m., Saturday, July 30, according to a statement from Harpswell Fire Administrator Arthur “Art” Howe III. The area is far from any road and easier to access by water, so firefighters requested boats to assist.
Harpswell’s harbor master, deputy harbor master and shellfish wardens provided transportation by boat and airboat, Howe said. The airboat was especially helpful, as much of Long Reach becomes a mud flat at low tide. A private boat also assisted.
About a dozen Harpswell firefighters responded on Saturday, along with a state forest ranger and a helicopter from the Maine Forest Service. They fought the fire until the approach of dusk. Although the fire was not completely out, they left the area because of safety concerns about firefighting at night in rugged terrain, according to Howe.
The site has an elevation rise of 80-plus feet within 100 yards of the shore, with rocks, roots and sharp drops along the way.
Harpswell firefighters returned to the area on Sunday morning, with two forest rangers and firefighters from Richmond, Topsham, West Bath and Woolwich. Efforts continued until Sunday evening and resumed on Monday, with 10-14 Harpswell firefighters and a forest ranger “chasing hot spots,” Howe said.
“Because of the dry conditions throughout the area and much of Maine, this fire may smolder and travel underground for an unknown and extended time period,” Howe said in a statement on Monday. The town suspended open burning.
After Monday, the landowners monitored the area daily and put out hot spots with shovels and buckets of water, according to Howe. After a light rain later in the week, there were no more hot spots the evening of Saturday, Aug. 6, a week after the fire started.
Harpswell was in a moderate drought when the fire broke out, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, which upgraded the area to severe drought by the end of the following week. On Aug. 17, Harpswell was still in a severe drought.
One town firefighter suffered a minor to moderate injury during the response. The firefighter missed a week of work but has since returned, Howe said on Aug. 11.
During the long days in the woods, firefighters were kept fed and hydrated, and had opportunities to rest, Howe said.
The fire briefly closed the town’s Cliff Trail, on the opposite side of Long Reach, while Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Long Reach Preserve closed for longer because of its proximity to the fire, Howe said.
Gregory Mulcahy, a forest ranger with the Maine Forest Service, said in an email that the fire likely spread from an unextinguished campfire.
Stephanie and Stephen Rowe own the property. Howe described the location as across Long Reach from Yuhas Drive and about a half-mile north of the island in Long Reach.
The town is issuing burn permits again, but Howe cautioned that drought raises the degree of risk. Permit holders must supervise burns constantly under any conditions, but should be even more attentive now.
In his statement, Howe delivered a “hearty and sincere thank you” to responders and their families.
In a Facebook post, the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department urged followers to thank their volunteers for “a bang-up job” and added information about how to volunteer with Harpswell’s three independent fire departments. Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue and the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department assisted with the response.
Cundy’s Harbor Fire and Rescue Chief Benjamin Wallace Jr. recently told the Anchor that the department is “holding on by the skin of our teeth” through a shortage of volunteers, particularly emergency medical technicians.
In a Facebook post on the first night of the fire, the department issued a plea for volunteers. “We really need some help,” the post read, calling for anyone willing and able to meet at the department the next morning.
In a post on the third day, the department identified staffing as one of its “three biggest challenges” with the fire. The others were the inability to draft water from Long Reach at low tide and “the elevation and distance to be overcome by our small forestry pumps.”
“Most of our volunteers had to go back to work this morning, so there’s a very reduced crew today,” the department said. It asked people to avoid the area, because dead trees were falling and it is private property.