By Hiroko Sato
AYER/GROTON — Ken Wilcox was driving under a scorching sun toward Long Pond in Ayer about 3 p.m. on Monday when he saw the hazy clouds hovering over his waterfront neighborhood.
“I came out of the hill and saw all kinds of smoke” billowing from the forest across the pond, said Wilcox who lives beside the pond in Ayer, near the Groton line.
He immediately dialed 911. It turned out local firefighters had already been dispatched to the brush fire, which was raging nearby in Groton, about 1 1/2 miles in the forest off Wright Road, which runs from behind Sandy Pond in Ayer toward the Lower Long Pond that straddles the town line.
A limited water supply made fighting the brush fire tough to control. The fire continued to burn throughout the night, spreading from three acres early on to 12 acres by Tuesday morning.
By the morning, firefighters from 20 towns across the region descended on the Groton-Ayer border to join the battle.
“(There has been) no rain forever, so it not only burns across, but also burns deep,” Lt. Timothy Shea of Ayer Fire Department said. “It’s labor-intensive.”
More than 50 firefighters from across Greater Boston and northern Middlesex County battled the fire in Groton Tuesday as embers continued to smolder deep in the forest. Fire officials expect smoldering to continue for several days.
Though the fire did not threaten any homes, the location made it difficult for firefighters to carry in water. The regional firefighting force was divided into two teams to tackle the fire from two directions yesterday, with one group pumping water from Long Pond. Yesterday’s heat made the battle even more difficult.
There were 3-foot-high flames flaring up across a three-acre area in the woods, Shea said.
“It just hit 100 degrees,” Dracut Fire Chief Leo Gaudette said Tuesday afternoon as he watched firefighters shuffling back and forth on all-terrain vehicles between the fire site and a staging area off Wright Road in Ayer. “We are taking turns.”
Fire officials did not know Tuesday how the fire might have started. But Gaudette said it is unlikely it started naturally, given that there has been no thunderstorm this week.
In general, “the state is in the early stages of a drought that has caused a number of fires,” state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said yesterday. The lack of rain is pushing the heat index to more than 100 degrees, he said, which is a very dangerous situation for firefighters.
Gaudette said area fire departments also were responding Tuesday to a few small brush fires, including one in Tyngsboro.
Fire officials believe the Groton fire started at about 11 a.m. on Monday shortly before a passer-by on Westford Road in Ayer saw smoke coming from the forest and called 911.
Firefighters from Groton and several surrounding towns, including Ayer, Pepperell, Westford and Lunenburg, rushed to the scene on Monday. Water shuttles were used to refill water tanks on forest firetrucks, and the firefighters knocked down the flames and surround the fire, Shea said.
But the fire remained underground, continuing to send up white smoke above the tree lines. Tuesday, firefighters from 20 communities that are part of the Metro Fire Mutual Aid District 13-A — which includes such towns as Burlington, Weston and Needham — arrived in their forest firetrucks. These trucks carry less water than conventional fire engines but are smaller in size and more mobile, said Rob Wollner, firefighter from Belmont, who was on the scene.
While many firefighters made their way into the forest on ATVs, others took a boat from a staging area off Turtle Road in Ayer, near where Wilcox lives, to pump water to the shore.
The task force involved the state Department of Fire Services and the Massachusetts Forest Fire Control. They did not know what might have caused the brush fire. But the firefighters should be able to find out where it started while trying to extinguish it, Gaudette said.
David Rock, who lives on Wright Road in Ayer, said he heard about the brush fire and it concerned him somewhat. He could tell how dry the weather has been by seeing no water in the well in his backyard, he said.
Wilcox’s wife, Joan, said she checked the smoke twice overnight to make sure the fire was not headed toward their house. The pond’s shore in front of their home has turned into marsh recently because of the lack of rain, Ken Wilcox said.
Sun staff writer Joyce Tsai contributed to this report.