Thursday, November 29, 2001

Woodstove blamed for Thanksgiving fire in Cape

Published in the Current

On Thanksgiving night, firefighters’ pagers went off all over Cape Elizabeth. The home of Rudy,Teresa and Alex Tumidajski on Sweet Fern Road was ablaze.

The family was in Connecticut for the holiday, but relatives who live nearby came to the house.

They called Connecticut and the Tumidajskis headed back to Maine that night. Their beloved dog, an Australian terrier named Max, died in the fire. “He was 7 going on 2,” Teresa Tumidajski said. Rudy said he wasn’t sure if he would get another dog, after the heartbreak of losing Max.

As firefighters arrived, they saw a house “fully involved,” with flames shooting from
upstairs windows and licking the outside of the brick chimney.

“The fire had a real good jump on us,” said Fire Chief Philip McGouldrick. The beams holding up the second floor had already burned through, collapsing a bedroom into the living room. McGouldrick said the fire was due to prolonged use of a woodstove insert in the fireplace.

There is sometimes little a firefighter can actually do. Even rapidly extinguishing a blaze can leave only a sodden, ash-coated shell of a building, with a home, memories and treasured possessions destroyed.

In the effort, two firefighters were slightly injured, one by tripping over a planter sitting on the darkened lawn, and the other had his shoulder clipped by a piece of clapboard that fell off the building.

Within 25 minutes of the crews’ arrival, the fire was under control, and the home’s attached three-car garage was saved, McGouldrick said.

After that came what the crews call “overhaul,” when they tear apart the remains of the building’s interior to make sure there is no fire hiding between walls or in the rubble.

Investigators next comb through the wreckage, searching for the source of the fire.

The outside of the building gives a good clue. There is severe damage around the chimney and in the upper bedroom, where the fire burned through the exterior walls.

The house was originally built with electric heat, but due to the expense, there was a woodstove insert installed into the fireplace which McGouldrick believes caused the fire. Over 12 years, the Tumidajskis have used the insert primarily as a furnace.

“A fireplace is more aesthetic,” McGouldrick said, and should not be used as the primary source of heat in a home.

The sustained heat from the stove made the fireplace bricks hot. Those bricks were stacked right up against the wood frame of the house, which would be fine for a fireplace in occasional use, McGouldrick said, but is not appropriate for a furnace.

Over time, high heat affects the wood, creating a low-grade smoldering, which makes it more likely to catch fire.

A new two-by-four needs to be heated to between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit before it will burn, McGouldrick said. But after years of heat contact like that in the Tumidajskis’ fireplace, it would only need to get up to around 100 degrees before catching fire.

McGouldrick said people who have woodstove inserts should have their fireplaces checked out by the local fire department. And people going through a house with a home inspector should ask about the possibility of installing a woodstove into the fireplace, rather than assuming it will be fine.

The family had banked up their woodstove so it would continue to heat the house over the long weekend.

And hours after they left, it heated the wood to its burning point.

With few neighbors home, and the fire on the side of the house and away from the street, nobody noticed the flames until it was too late.

The shell of the house remains, with its windows boarded up. The family said the insurance company may decide to repair the damage rather than start from scratch, but that remains to be seen.

The Tumidajskis are holding up well, staying with Teresa’s mother in South Portland, and focusing on “what’s important in life.”

“Your world as you know it is turned upside-down and disintegrated,” Teresa said.

She said they do plan to rebuild the house, but it could be several months in the process, notwithstanding winter.

She asked that people who want to help say prayers for the family.

Chief McGouldrick said his firefighters turned out in great numbers despite the holiday. The first people on the scene were there within five minutes of the call. “We had a good response,” McGouldrick said. And nobody really left early, either, even though, with cleanup included, the work took close to four hours. “The more people that stay and pitch in, the quicker everybody gets home.”

“It’s what firefighters do,” McGouldrick said, “and what their families have come to expect. It just seems to happen at inopportune times.”