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Residents told to be vigilant after multiple building and forest fires

A SUMMER HOME OWNED by Freedom Selectman Scott Cunningham was destroyed by fire Sunday. Fire officials are calling the fire suspicious. (Mellisa Seamans photo) (click for larger version)
June 30, 2011
REGION— A string of intentionally-set fires is keeping fire officials and police on edge, and they are asking residents to be especially vigilant and report anything suspicious, no matter how minor it may seem.

The latest warning comes the day after two seasonal homes were destroyed by fire early Monday morning. It had been six days since a fire ruled as arson destroyed two barns on Mooney Hill Road in Madison, and just about to the minute when the call rang out at 12:08 a.m. for a large barn fire at 15 Glines Hill Road in Eaton. That town does not have its own fire department but is protected through agreements with the town of Center Conway and Freedom. Both of those departments sent all of their fire trucks and Madison Fire Department sent help, too. The large barn was attached by an ell to an unoccupied farmhouse. The next morning, the barn was gone, the ell and house heavily damaged.

Just 40 minutes into the Eaton fire, with all of their equipment committed to help that town, the unthinkable happened as the emergency call went out for Freedom Fire and Rescue to respond to a house fire, seven miles away, in their own town.

Emergency crews were sent to that scene from Effingham, Center Ossipee, Tamworth, West Ossipee, Ossipee Corner and Wakefield. The house, belonging to Freedom selectman Scott Cunningham, was completely engulfed in flames when Freedom's deputy fire chief Justin Brooks arrived. Cunningham and his wife Ann used to live in the house before building their house on Ossipee Lake and were in New York at the time the fire broke out. The house, that has been in the Cunningham family for 100 years, was being used as a summer vacation spot for their children and grandchildren, according to Cunningham's son, Ross, who came to the scene in the middle of the night and was still there well into the next morning. He said he and his wife and children had been staying there over the weekend and left to return home to Lisbon, Maine around 3 p.m. Sunday. He said he is sure they turned everything off and closed the house up properly before heading home as there is a specific checklist they all follow when staying there. "I'm just grateful this didn't happen Saturday night while we were sleeping here," he said. His father made it back from New York in time to attend that afternoon's selectmen's meeting and thanked the fire department for doing what they could to keep the fire from spreading into the woods or to other homes in the area. He called the loss "terrible."

While firefighters dealt with putting out the fires, police patrolled the area looking for suspicious activity and questioning possible witnesses. The state fire marshal's office sent a full team as four officers responded to take charge of the investigation at both scenes. By midday Monday, all press requests for further information were being forwarded to the fire marshal's office. "We would hate to say or do anything that would interfere with the investigation," said Madison Deputy Chief Richard Clark.

The confirmation came later in the day that these were set fires. In a press release from the fire marshal's office, it was announced the preliminary investigation of the fires had concluded. "Investigators from the NH State Fire Marshal's Office with the assistance of State Police, local police and fire departments have ruled out natural and accidental fire causes, and classified the cause of the fires incendiary...The case remains under investigation by the NH State Fire Marshal's Office. Anyone with information about these fires is urged to contact the New Hampshire State Police Dispatch at 271-3636 or the Arson Hotline at 1-800-400-3526," the press release states.

At the fire scenes, none of the firefighters asked chose to speak on the record but the common feelings expressed were exhaustion, concern and anger. Nearly all of the firefighters that have been responding to these calls are volunteers who hold at least one if not two or three jobs in addition to firefighting. And it's been a long two months. Prior to the outbreak of suspicious fires that started in Madison in late May, the last big fire many of them worked together was the Straughan house and barn fire in Center Ossipee last fall.

May 31, under an extended period of no significant rainfall for some time, at about 11 p.m. crews were called to the Ossipee Pine Barrens off Route 41 in Madison to extinguish about an acre of forest fire. The next afternoon, June 1, they were called to put out a 3-acre burn area in a different area of the Pine Barrens. Then on the morning of June 5, approximately 50 firefighters responded to yet another area of the Pine Barrens and spent about five hours putting out a fire that was later determined to actually be three set fires that combined into one.

Between June 5 and June 21, crews responded to reports of set fires in the woods behind King Pine Ski Area and another on the resort's property across the street on Sunset Beach Road.

June 21 was the massive blaze at 192 Mooney Hill Road just after midnight where two large post and beam barns burned and several animals were killed. When the fire chief first arrived he said it seemed unlikely they would be able to save the house. Firefighters who were on that scene are being heralded for their extraordinary efforts in saving the house that was just 30 feet away from one of the barns. After this fire, the fire marshal's office issued a press release asking for help as they attempt to locate, identify and speak with the owner or operator of a blue Jeep Wrangler with a white top. The vehicle is believed to have a Maine license plate with the two pine cones and chickadee bird design.

In the late evening of June 22, fire crews were called to extinguish a shed fire in the employee parking lot across the street from King Pine Ski Area. The building had been used to store the resort's banquet tables and chairs: all were destroyed in the fire.

No matter how insignificant something may seem at the time, fire officials urge anyone to call who might have information to help solve any of these cases. In addition to the state phones numbers mentioned above, calls can also be made to your local fire department or the Carroll County Dispatch at 539-2284. Police and fire officials have also issued a public service announcement to help residents protect their property from arsonists. They offer 11 suggestions:

1. Keep your outside lights on or on motion sensors.

2. Keep and interior light on or on a timer so it looks like someone is at home.

3. Have a friend or family member leave a vehicle in the driveway and move it every so often so it looks like someone is home.

4. Keep all windows and doors locked: this includes your sheds and out buildings.

5. Keep all flammable liquids under lock and key.

6. Clean out all overgrown vegetation from around your home and business.

7. Replace broken panes of glass on windows.

8. Remove all excess clutter from around your home or business.

9. Contact your local police department to see if they do home and business checks while you are away.

10. Report any suspicious activity to police no matter how insignificant you might think it is.

11. Do not take matters into your own hands.

AJ Coleman
Varney Smith
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