Monhegan Heroes Quell Overnight Blaze
The volunteer firefighters on Monhegan Island don’t see a lot of action, but just after midnight on Feb. 14, when the first structure fire on Monhegan Island in 22 years broke out, a crew of five firefighters pulled together and had the fire “totally out” when Bristol firefighters arrived on the island for mutual aid, said Jared Pendleton, Bristol First Assistant Fire Chief.
The homeowner, Sherman Stanley, was at home alone with his dog when the fire started; neither Stanley nor the dog was injured in the fire, Pendleton said.
Pendleton arrived on scene with eight other Bristol firefighters and a Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy after the fire had been extinguished – using water pumped from a hand-dug well – with little structural damage to the home and no threat to surrounding structures.
“There was extensive smoke damage, but the house is very rebuildable,” Pendleton said. “A small group of volunteers did a phenomenal job. It was a basic, homegrown, grassroots effort.”
At the Lincoln County Commissioners meeting on Feb. 15, Lincoln County Emergency Management Director Tim Pellerin commended the island’s firefighters, saying, “The Monhegan fire brigade are heroes.”
The fire started after a propane tank next to the home leaked fuel into the basement. An unknown source – possibly electrical – sparked the propane and fire spread, Pendleton said.
According to Pendleton, Stanley, who could not be reached for comment, told firefighters he was sleeping and the initial explosion from the propane in the basement igniting “woke him up somewhat,” Pendleton said. It was only after Stanley’s dog ran downstairs and back up to the bedroom that Stanley knew something was wrong.
“[Stanley] credits his dog for making sure he knew what was going on and getting him out of bed,” Pendleton said.
Monhegan firefighters responded to the scene shortly after the fire ignited, used the capacity of the water tank on their 1963 fire truck, and started pumping water from the hand-dug well, an old public water supply.
“I was amazed that well held out until the fire was out,” said Monhegan firefighter Matt Schweier. Monhegan has a town water supply, but it’s only operational from about April to November.
Schweier, 42, has been going to Monhegan Island in the summers for most of his life, and has lived on the island year round for about eight years. In the last 10 years that he’s been fighting fires with the Monhegan Fire Department, this is the largest fire he’s seen.
“We get bean pots on stoves that make some smoke, and a dryer fire” started a few years ago, but it’s rare for the volunteers to face a fully involved structure fire, Schweier said.
Schweier was humble about his department’s response to the blaze: “It was 95 percent luck and 5 percent effort and everything else,” he said. The weather – light wind and above-freezing temperatures – was a major stroke of good favor, Schweier said.
“Bristol was key,” Schweier said. “Those are the guys with the training and equipment” who were able to tell with certainty that the fire was out.
“If it had been worse, we would have really needed them,” Schweier said.
Along with Bristol and Monhegan firefighters, the Coast Guard responded to transport Bristol firefighters and their equipment from New Harbor to the island. Bristol, which only has a 16-foot rescue boat, called on the Coast Guard for transport because the 10-foot seas that night were “too rough for the local fishermen that usually take us out,” Pendleton said.
From the time they received the call, it took about 15 minutes for the Coast Guard to dispatch a 47-foot boat from Boothbay Harbor, said Coast Guard Chief Kris Demetros.
“We try to help whomever we can,” Demetros said.
In about 35-40 minutes the Coast Guard boat arrived in New Harbor. The ride to Monhegan took about 40 minutes, which was fast in the rough waters, Pendleton said.
“Most of the firefighters got seasick,” Pendleton said. “It wasn’t a pretty – or pleasant smelling – trip.”
After inspecting the scene of the fire and ensuring that it was out, Bristol returned to the mainland, arriving back in New Harbor at around 6 a.m.
“I’d call it a well organized effort to get out there, and an excellent job by everyone involved,” said Bristol Fire Chief Paul Leeman.
The fire is not being treated as suspicious, Leeman said.