Former Maine fire chief to serve prison time for arson

Ricky Plummer has still not said why he started the fire, which burned 42 acres and required 100 firefighters to spend five hours dousing the flames in 2016


By Edward Murphy
Portland Press Herald

ALFRED, Maine — A former Old Orchard Beach fire chief will serve a year in prison for setting a fire in a marshy area that threatened apartment and condominium complexes in that town.

Ricky Plummer, who appeared in York County Superior Court on Wednesday for his sentencing, has still not said why he started the fire, which burned 42 acres of marsh and required 100 firefighters to spend five hours dousing the flames in April 2016. The flames spread quickly in windy, dry "red flag" conditions.

Ricky Plummer will serve a year in prison or setting a fire in a marshy area that threatened apartment and condominium complexes. (Photo/York County Sheriff's Office)
Ricky Plummer will serve a year in prison or setting a fire in a marshy area that threatened apartment and condominium complexes. (Photo/York County Sheriff's Office)

No one was hurt and firefighters managed to get the blaze under control before it damaged any buildings.

Plummer initially said the fire started accidentally, but then pleaded guilty to arson last fall and prosecutors dropped a lesser charge of failing to control or report a dangerous fire.

Arson can be punished by a sentence of up to 30 years, but Plummer's plea deal called for a sentence of no more than 10 years, with actual jail time capped at two years. He will also serve four years of probation, during which he will undergo a psychological evaluation and not be allowed to possess an incendiary device.

In his latest statement on the fire, filed with the court in January, Plummer said he went into the marshy area on the dry, blustery April day to try to deal with stress and to smoke a cigarette, although he was not known to be a smoker. He said he struck two matches to light the cigarette, and the second match sparked a fire when he dropped it onto the dry grass.

"I should have immediately put it out, but I didn't," he said in the statement, according to prosecutor Justina McGettigan. "I don't know why."

He said the fire spread quickly and he left when he realized that the flames had grown too big for him to handle.

Plummer still didn't offer an explanation Wednesday when he spoke to York County Superior Court Justice Wayne R. Douglas.

He apologized to more than a half dozen individuals and groups, including town officials, firefighters and Old Orchard Beach residents, saying he let them down and betrayed their trust.

His wife, Elizabeth Plummer, also spoke to Douglas, saying that she was diagnosed with a tennis ball-size brain tumor more than three years ago, and her husband has helped her through operations and numerous doctors' appointments. She also said that she suffers from agoraphobia, which is a fear of public places, and relies on her husband for grocery shopping, getting her to the doctor and picking up prescriptions.

McGettigan said prosecutors are sympathetic to Elizabeth Plummer's health issues and acknowledged that Ricky Plummer, 61, has health problems of his own. But she said that doesn't mitigate the seriousness of his crime and the fact that he put dozens of lives in danger by setting the fire.

She also said Plummer has had shifting explanations for what happened and he initially denied any role in setting the fire. But a surveillance camera caught him driving up to a spot near where the fire started, recorded him getting out and walking into the marsh and then had him returning to his SUV, at a quickened pace, about 20 minutes later. He didn't report the fire and drove off toward Scarborough. A a resident of one of the condos reported the fire.

A search of Plummer's computer indicated he had called up maps of the area near where the fire started earlier in the day, McGettigan said, making his actions appear premeditated, rather than accidental.

Plummer's lawyer, Nathaniel Hitchcock, argued for a sentence of four years, with all but five months suspended, and Douglas read several quotes of praise from newspaper articles written when Plummer retired from the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Fire Department, 16 years ago.

He has since worked for other fire departments around New England for short stints as a "fixer," brought in to help ineffective departments operate better.

Douglas said the articles suggested Plummer is a "stand-up guy," but the seriousness of the crime called for a sentence of nine years, with all but one year suspended. Douglas said the relatively short jail time was called for by Plummer's record, although he said he was still troubled by Plummer's failure to offer an explanation for the fire.

McGettigan said arson by firefighters is not uncommon, with about 100 charged every year. But she said most firefighters who commit arson are relatively young -- in their 20s and 30s -- and are usually volunteer firefighters, not professionals or top department officials like Plummer.

Copyright 2018 Portland Press Herald

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