2017-08-10 / News

Fires break out in Clifford Park

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Clifford Park continues to experience growing pains as it adjusts to increased traffic and public awareness. Three fires occurred over the course of four days, but were put out safely thanks to the Biddeford, Saco, Scarborough and Goodwins Mills Fire Departments.

Biddeford Fire Chief Scott Gagne said because the first two were so close together it’s difficult to tell if they were separate incidents. However, the third was the most labor intensive because it burned between four and seven inches beneath the ground in some areas, traveled horizontally and then ignited unburned areas further away. Gagne believes the fires were caused by unattended campfires, which are illegal in all public parks in the city. The fires occurred Sunday, July 30, Monday, July 31 and Wednesday, Aug. 2. Gagne said the conditions did not help with fighting the fires either.

“Our worry is the dry afternoon sun comes out, we could have more areas of concern,” he said.

Clifford Park’s size makes it difficult to locate the fires as well. Gagne said smoke from the park was visible from the fire station on Alfred Street and a plane flying overhead called to report it. It can take a long time for firefighters to canvas the 140-acre park, he said. Staff are prone to heat exhaustion as they traverse rocky terrain and stretch lengths of hose as long as 700 feet. On top of that, finding enough staff is an ongoing issue for the Biddeford Fire Department.

“Weekdays are very challenging for us, making sure we have enough resources,” Gagne said.

The last time the fire department increased staff was 2005, and Gagne said the department received 2,078 calls that year. Last year he said the department received 5,398. Gagne understands the city has difficult fiscal decisions to make, but said the department will need to increase staffing if it wants to maintain its current level of service.

“We will always provide the best service we can and meet challenges, but it’s becoming more difficult every day,” he said.

The fire department averages 14 calls per day and relies on Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Arundel, among other departments, when it doesn’t have necessary resources. Gagne said pressure is high when the workload every day is impossible to know. However, he said the department receives multiple calls at once more frequently, putting a strain on an already taxed work force.

“The growth of the city impacts city services,” he said.

Growth also means more people visiting Clifford Park, and Friends of Clifford Park Co-Founder Catherine Glynn said this is ultimately a good thing. She’s happy to see more hikers and bikers, but said the fires are nothing new. Glynn said one of the fires started in a regular fire pit next to a small shelter.

“I was not surprised this happened,” she said. “We’ve been dispersing fire pits the past couple years so people don’t get the idea this is an OK activity.”

Being in the park after dusk is also illegal according to city ordinance, which is when Glynn suspects most of the fires are being started. Disregarding the illegality, she said the fires are especially dangerous given the number of homes close to the edge of the park. She asks anyone in the park to report illegal activity to the police and fire departments.

“People need to report what they see,” she said.

There are no signs within the park reminding people campfires are illegal, but Glynn hopes that will change soon. She said Friends of Clifford Park os working on measures to increase prevention awareness.

For Glynn, this is more motivation for her to continue preservation efforts when it comes to the park. She said there are more people than ever participating in activities that include nature walks and Monday yoga sessions. She’s glad the fires are gaining more public attention.

“Now seems like the time to really address it and crack down on it,” she said.

At the same time, Glynn is discouraged that negative events in the park get more press. Despite this she said the park has come a long way during the past two years between the new wrought iron gate and perennial flower beds. She hopes the attention will help reduce vandalism and fires, even if they’re never fully eliminated.

“People are out enjoying and using the park appropriately,” she said. “I think there’s more good stuff happening than not.”

A mindfulness walk will be held 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 at Clifford Park. In September – date to be determined – Friends of Clifford Park will host a Views and Brews walk, ending at a brewery in downtown Biddeford. For more information, visit the Friends of Clifford Park Facebook page.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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