Maine Forest Rangers complete investigation of Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, Saco, Biddeford railroad fires

July 17, 2014

For more information, contact: Matthew Bennett at 207-650-4442

Investigators have concluded that the fires were caused by sparks emanating from a Pan Am freight train due to an undetermined mechanical problem

AUGUSTA – The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s (DACF) Forest Rangers have completed their investigation of the Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, Saco, Biddeford railroad fires. Investigators have concluded that the fires were caused by sparks emanating from a Pan Am freight train due to an undetermined mechanical problem. The investigation yielded no violations of Maine law. There are no charges pending in relation to the fires.

Rangers on average respond to and investigate over 40 railroad caused fires annually. They also patrol hundreds of miles of railroad tracks each year to ensure the vegetation is managed according to state fire prevention laws. Maine’s fire prevention railroad laws are targeted towards reducing fire hazards along the right-of-way and properly maintaining the locomotive engines so that sparks are not thrown from the exhaust into nearby vegetation and start wildfires.

Investigation

Following a two-month investigation, the Department compiled a 554 page report documenting the cause of the wildfires. The report can be viewed for a limited time at: http://www.maine.gov/dacf/about/news/oob-report.pdf What follows is a brief summary of the findings contained in the report:

Report Summary

On May 8, 2014, Scarborough, Old Orchard Beach, Saco, and Biddeford experienced a minimum of 47 separate fires along the railroad tracks. Two Forest Rangers and a Forest Service helicopter were called upon to respond to the wildfires and assist local fire departments with suppression activities. Several properties were damaged or destroyed as a result of these fires. The hardest hit area was the Wagon Wheel Campground in Old Orchard Beach, which suffered the loss of 10 camper trailers and damage to several others. Total damage estimates are still being tallied by victims and insurance companies, but are expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

During the time of the fire starts, Forest Rangers determined that there were two different trains that had passed through the area. Both of these trains were westbound, headed toward Boston and Portsmouth respectively. These trains passed through the same fire areas ranging from 8-13 minutes of each other. The first train to pass through was an Amtrak passenger train on its way to Boston. After the fires were discovered, the Amtrak train was notified and subsequently stopped in Wells, Maine and again in Massachusetts. This passenger train was inspected by Amtrak personnel and found to be free of any defects. Investigators found no witnesses who reported sparks coming from the underside of the Amtrak train. The second train to pass through the area was a freight train operated by Pan Am Railways and led by locomotive 307.

Forest Rangers and other law enforcement officers conducted numerous interviews and received multiple eyewitness accounts of sparks coming from the Pan Am freight train. There were multiple reports of sparks, the smell of burning rubber, and smoke coming from the Pan Am freight train immediately preceding the start of the wildfires. Investigators determined that the Pan Am train did stop in Biddeford, but it is unclear if any work was done to correct any mechanical defects during this stop.

Forest Rangers held the Pan Am freight train in Dover, New Hampshire where one of their investigators inspected locomotive 307 and its consist. The exhaust stack on locomotive 307 was found to be within compliance of Maine spark arrestor law and was ruled not likely a contributing factor in the wildfire starts.

Investigators conducted wildfire cause and origin investigations. They also interviewed many eye witnesses, several Amtrak and Pan Am employees, examined software data from the locomotives, and did wildfire behavior analysis on the forest fuels in the area to determine probabilities of ignition. Metal fragments collected from the points of origin support the eyewitness accounts of sparks originating from the wheels and underside of the south bound Pan Am freight train. As a result of their investigation, Forest Ranger investigators have concluded that the cause of the wildfires was from sparks emanating from the Pan Am freight train due to an undetermined mechanical problem.

Major factors leading to the find that the Pan Am freight train caused the fires:

Witnesses: During the course of the investigation, multiple witnesses were interviewed and they described the freight train as “being louder than normal…making loud squealing, clacking, thumping, sounds…sending a shower of sparks from under the train, at the wheels…smelling like burning rubber… and very smoky.” Immediately after the passage of the freight train the fires started. Additionally, the freight train crew did not report any wildfire activity as they traveled through the area. Many recall the passenger train passing earlier, with no out-of-the-ordinary sights, sounds or smells.

  • Fire Behavior Analysis: Fire behavior analysis does not support a theory that Amtrak started smoldering fires which were fanned by the passage of the freight train. Fire behavior analysis indicates that Pan Am’s freight train would have been passing through active wildfires, had Amtrak sparked all these fires.

  • Time Line: At mile post 203 in Scarborough, the freight train stopped to let the passenger train pass. The passenger train stopped in Saco to let on passengers. The freight trains next stop was in Biddeford after they had been alerted that fires had started along the tracks. The passenger train was in Wells when they were notified. The time frames in which these trains passed known points also corroborate the fire behavior analysis. As the Amtrak train continued ahead of Pan Am’s freight train it was gaining a lead time from eight minutes to thirteen minutes within an eight mile stretch. With that much time between the trains, fires would have spread rapidly.

Case unusual:

This case was unusual in that it was not associated with a poorly maintained spark arrestor or some other mechanical failure that provides clear physical evidence. Eyewitness accounts describe seeing sparks coming from the train’s wheels as if there was some type of mechanical problem. Unfortunately, the environmental conditions on May 8th were favorable for the spread of wildfire.

Local fire departments and responders praised:

There was a significant amount of property damage and it required crews from at least 20 different fire departments. If not for the outstanding response from these local departments the damages could easily have been more extensive. Thankfully there were no fatalities and no serious injuries reported. One Saco resident was transported by ambulance for smoke inhalation, and one fire fighter was checked out for dehydration/heat exhaustion.

Anyone with additional information or questions relevant to these fires is asked to contact the Maine Forest Service at 1-800-750-9777.