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‘A river of flames': 30 FDs battle burning oil trucks at N.H. fuel company

The mutual aid fire in Epping saw tankers, a foam trailer and an ARFF rig from a regional airport on the scene

By Jonathan Phelps
The New Hampshire Union

EPPING, N.H. — Fire officials Sunday were still investigating the cause of an inferno at North Atlantic Fuels in Epping Saturday afternoon that drew firefighters from 30 surrounding departments to help.

Meanwhile, the Durham-UNH water department shut down its nearby Lamprey River treatment facility so authorities could ensure the area’s main water supply had not been contaminated by the firefighting effort.

The blaze that consumed multiple oil delivery trucks at the Depot Road site took several hours to extinguish with help from a foam truck brought in from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and a foam trailer from Salem. Multiple departments also brought in water in tankers, according to Epping fire Lt. Adinara Challinor.

No firefighters were injured while fighting the blaze, which destroyed three tankers and a tractor-trailer cab. Firefighters were able to pinpoint where the fire began, but as of Sunday afternoon a cause had yet to be determined.

“It doesn’t look faulty,” Challinor said. “Nobody was around. The place was closed. There was nobody working. There was nobody there for hours before this happened.”

The New Hampshire Fire Marshal’s Office confirmed, “At this point in the investigation, the fire does not appear to be suspicious in nature or involve criminal intent.”

The region also dealt with fires in Hampton and Rye prior to the inferno and another that sparked in Dover.

“Towns were responding to the fire from the other fires,” Challinor said. “Our Epping truck came from Hampton .”

One challenge was the wind, which had the flames stretching up into nearby trees.

Challinor, who was the first to respond to the blaze on Saturday, walked the scene again Sunday, saying three vehicles were able to be moved and crews worked to prevent a pile of logs from fully catching fire. The oil leaked out of the trucks and spread to the dirt parking area, Challinor said.

“This turned into a river of flames,” she said. “It burned through our hoses.”

The department will have to assess all the gear lost.

In all, four trucks were a total loss and four others were damaged, according to Challinor.

Around 4:30 p.m., a neighbor called 911 after hearing multiple explosions coming from the property. The sounds were likely of tires popping in the heat, Challinor said.

North Atlantic Fuels, which delivers firewood and wood pellets across southern Maine and the Seacoast, operates on a 20-acre site. The company also does home heating oil and diesel fuel services, owner Rob Wilich said.

Challinor said the truck where the fire started hadn’t been moved for days.

“It had been over a week since that truck had run,” Challinor said.

Wilich went to the scene of the fire as soon as he heard from neighbors who called him after reaching 911.

“We’re going to be fine,” he said. “It is just going to take a little extra work and creativity to figure out how to serve all the customers.”

He does not know the cost of the damage.

On Facebook, the department thanked mutual aid crews, which came in from all over New Hampshire and Maine.

Fire out by 8 p.m.

“We couldn’t do a job like this without your crews, trucks and training!” the department wrote on Facebook Saturday night. “We are blessed to be a part of the Seacoast Fire Officers Mutual Aid system. Thankfully all firefighters went home safe!”

The fire was extinguished around 8 p.m., but environmental concerns were raised as a result of the blaze, namely the burning oil and foam used to battle the fire.

In a news release, Durham Town Manager Todd Selig noted that the fire scene was about 2,000 feet from the Lamprey River, which is a source of drinking water for the Durham-UNH water system and others.

The Durham-UNH system shut down its Lamprey River treatment facility and switched to alternate sources until the potential for contamination can be assessed, Selig said.

Depot Road crosses Route 101 at Exit 6. The fire scene is not far from the location of another major environmental incident that occurred when a tanker truck was forced off Route 101 and overturned in December 2019 , spilling 6,000 gallons of gasoline into a low-lying area next to the highway.

“It didn’t catch on fire,” Challinor said.

As for the Saturday fire, no other properties were at risk of the fire spreading.

Wilich is grateful for the response to make sure his business wasn’t impacted more.

“It was incredible,” he said of the firefighting efforts.

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