With most of the water on the island shut off for the season, firefighters faced significant challenges containing a fire that destroyed the maintenance building on Squirrel Island Sunday, Nov. 19. The building was a total loss but there were no injuries, according to Southport Fire Chief Gerry Gamage. Crews said the response went as well as it could have fighting a fire that could be seen from the mainland.
“We did what we could with what we had,” Gamage said. “It was a challenge, but it was pretty much a success in spite of the loss of the building. Considering it was on the island, we lucked out.”
Squirrel Island Manager Rob Hopkins said the first crew to arrive came in by Southport lobsterman Andrew Taylor’s boat, one of the fastest in the region. Gamage said by the time the first six members of Southport Fire Department arrived, just before 4 p.m., the building was fully involved and three walls remained standing. Around two dozen firefighters from Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor departments arrived, carried by fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels, according to Gamage.
Hopkins said one piece of wall was still standing by the time everyone was on the scene. The fire crews left around 8 p.m., according to Gamage, but Hopkins and several others stayed on the island for a night watch with portable gear to keep an eye out for embers or other dangers.
Firefighters used portable pumps and the one operational well on the island, used for a year-round house. They ran a shuttle system from the well to the two fire trucks already on the island. Gamage said they could not get water from the shore due to the surf. In addition, he said an excavator was used to push the fire and burning material into itself, which “made a big difference.” He said the fire did not spread to the fire barn used to house the firefighting equipment, which was around 25 feet away.
“We did what we could. At that point it wasn't saving the building. It was just trying to keep everything. We were hoping the winds didn't kick up to spread embers all over the island and start more fire,” Hopkins said. “I guess you would say we contained it.”
On top of the difficulties of fighting a fire on an island, the plumbing and other resources had been winterized for the season. Hopkins said the crews had nothing they would normally have in terms of water. He said there was not an error and the island had followed normal seasonal procedures to mitigate winter damage, including draining pipes and shutting down water supplies. In addition, the mainland water supply was shut off the third week of October as normal.
“It's just the worst time,” Hopkins said. “This late fall always bothers me because vegetation, leaves and grasses and stuff, are dead and dying, and then I don't have water. So, it's kind of the worst time before we get snowfall or something like that. So, you're kind of vulnerable then, but it's just the way it is.”
Hopkins said almost all the maintenance equipment for the island was lost in the fire including tractors, gators, a chipper and a host of tools including chainsaws and landscaping equipment. He said the last major fire on the island was in 1987 when another maintenance building burned down.
The fire’s cause was not known; Gamage said the fire marshal will investigate.
“A real mystery to us. (There was) nothing in there running. There's no heat or anything like that on,” Hopkins said. "We've all scratched our heads trying to figure out what started this thing.”
Hopkins was grateful for the firefighting effort. “Great appreciation to all of them that packed up their gear and got out here,” he said. “Just terrific. There were so many of them that came out and you know they offered to do whatever they could do.”