Boothbay Harbor Fire Department newcomers Hunter Arsenault, Jay Hasch and Dave Buchanan graduated basic training days before the Beach Cove Inn fire. In an interview with the Boothbay Register, Arsenault and Hasch said the experience deepened their respect and honor for, and underscored the importance of, public service especially in the face of something that could have been much worse.
BHFD Chief Nick Upham was at the fire two minutes after the call, and the structure was already fully engulfed, they said. So, the goal from the start was protecting the neighborhood.
“When we first showed up there were houses across the road that were melting,” said Arsenault. “There were trees catching fire and we were just trying to keep everything contained for the most part. Once everything was contained and the fire died down a bit, we were able to start working on that, but that took hours to happen.”
Hasch said he was at St. Andrews Urgent Care when the call went out and he could not immediately respond. When he did leave the hospital to respond, he could feel the ground shaking from the Inn’s propane tank venting. The Inn was about half a mile away.
“It's like you're standing next to a fighter jet,” said Hasch. “I was like, 'First fire. Wow.' For a first fire, it was a learning experience.”
The fire was the region’s largest since the Washburn and Doughty blaze in 2008 and Arsenault said, from some of the talk in the firehouse, it was the biggest for most on the department. However, everyone used their training to keep themselves and people on Lakeview Road safe, they said.
Arsenault and Hasch completed 80 hours of training in about 1.5 months since early this year. They said none of the classes or exercises were so hard they failed or needed to try again, but the one thing they did need to repeat endlessly was gear drills.
Arsenault said his cousin Jesse Peters, a lieutenant for BHFD, prepared him for the gear tests before classes began and it was taking him about three minutes. By graduation, he said he brought his time down to just over a minute. Hasch said Upham helped prepare him and while instructors do not expect new recruits to know their way around all equipment, they still expect a little familiarity when they start their 80 hours.
“(At first), they don't tell you how to put your gear on. They just say, 'Get in your gear,'” said Hasch. “So, if you're brand new, if you join the department and are waiting for basic, you should probably know about your SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), how to turn it on, how to turn it off. And they taught us that, so I don't think anyone had any trouble knowing what things were when they first started.”
The basic training allows a firefighter to enter a burning building or respond to car fires and just about anything a firefighter does. Besides fires, the department gets called out to nearly anything the police department responds to especially gas and propane leaks, lift assists, accidents, “and a cat stuck in a tree,” Hasch joked. “I'm sure people expect that, but we haven't had one of those yet.”
Even though the new firefighters graduated, they have one more class, a burning car, to complete. The classes are normally held a few times per year, but the pandemic brought that down to just once, said Hasch. However, there are also some new recruits for Bristol’s fire department who need the same training, so the crews will meet soon.
Asked what drove them toward the flames, both firefighters interviewed said there was a defining moment. Hasch was working for public works when Upham, also public works foreman, dropped an application in front of him and asked if he wanted to join the department. Already on the fence about the idea, Hasch said it was the nudge he needed.
Arsenault joined the junior firefighters when he attended Boothbay Region High School, but the prospect of firefighting took a backseat to work, school and sports. After graduating in 2018, Arsenault started working at Boothbay Region Water District full time and J&A Construction part time. “I wanted to get back on the department and be a first-responder, but I just couldn't get myself to do it. Then my brother's girlfriend passed away in a car accident this past winter and that was kind of my final push.”
So, Arsenault walked into the fire department and got an application. He and Hasch suggested more ought to do the same.
“We've got a great group of guys here and in Boothbay on the departments (but) it's not like we're all sitting in the fire department waiting for a structure fire, you know,” said Arsenault.
“That's the thing, we need people,” Hasch said. “You never know who's going to be out of town, down at the bars. It doesn't hurt to have a ton of people on the department because that's just more people to go help … Once you go through basic and get into it, you're going to love it, no matter who you are.”
The best part about firefighting? “Saving people,” said Arsenault. “We haven't done a whole lot of it yet, but in time we will … I don't regret the classes, I don't regret joining, I don't regret one bit of it and I don't think there's going to be much I will. This is something I'm going to do for the rest of my life.”