By Bill Kirk
---- — Firefighters had a marathon of their own on Patriots Day, as burning embers flying out of a train car led to a series of fires along the railroad tracks while dry conditions and possibly kids playing in the woods led to a brush fire near homes on Regency Ridge.
At around noon on Monday, five brush fires flared up along the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority tracks near Lowell Junction Road. The fires were caused by old railroad ties that caught fire after being thrown into a “hopper car.”
According for fire Chief Mike Mansfield, the railroad ties had been cut by contractors working on a track-widening project. The pieces were thrown into an open railroad car to be hauled away, but then somehow caught fire. As the train was trundling down the tracks, embers flew out of the train car and landed in the tinder-dry woods, igniting a series of fires.
The train headed south and when it was a few hundred yards past the Gillette plant at 30 Burtt Road, the engineer saw the smoke and flames coming from the car right behind the engine.
“He stopped the train,” Deputy Chief James Dolan said. He put the engine in reverse and backed the train off the main line and into a spur. By that time, the deputy chief said, five brush fires had started along the tracks. He estimated the fires extended over about three-quarters of a mile.
The fires caused numerous delays in train service Monday afternoon, from 20 to 70 minutes long, according to Scott Farmelant, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which runs the trains for the MBTA. At least eight trains, inbound and outbound, were affected, he said.
While Andover firefighters were battling the flames along the commuter line, another brush fire broke out on Regency Ridge. That blaze was unrelated to the fires along the tracks, according to Dolan.
There were no injuries and no significant property damage, Dolan said. The cause of the fire in the hopper car is not known, the chief said.
One of the fires burned a large area behind a Market Basket warehouse, but firefighters stopped it before it could do any damage, he said.
Firefighters had to dig holes under the tracks so they could bring the hoses to the fires, Dolan said. In one spot, they had to lay 1,400 feet of hose.
While getting at the fires was a challenge, a nearby pond actually helped the firefighters. Using a flow pump, they drafted water from the pond to pour on the fires.
By 6 p.m., the fires were out. Engines 1 and 2 and a forestry truck from the Andover Fire Department knocked the fires down with assistance from Wilmington and North Reading firefighters. The Lawrence and North Reading fire departments covered the stations while the local crews attacked the fires.
“We had to call two alarms,” Mansfield said. In addition to a full shift, an additional 19 off-duty firefighters were called in to fight the fires.
Mansfield said the Regency Ridge fire was mostly out, but there were some smoldering hot spots that remained Tuesday morning.
He said it’s not known what started the Regency Ridge fire, but that it’s likely kids, who are on vacation from school this week, were behind it. He said the extremely dry conditions made matters worse.
The Regency Ridge fire was worrisome because it was burning up a hill toward some of the houses, he said. That fire was out by midday Tuesday.
“We were extremely concerned about that,” he said.
— Staff writer Paul Tennant contributed to this report.