LEWISTON — City officials are checking vacant properties and stepping up police patrols to try to prevent another fire in a downtown neighborhood where three major fires have gutted nine buildings and left nearly 200 people homeless since April 29.
A fire burned two vacant four-story apartment buildings on Bartlett Street early Monday morning, setting already shaky residents on edge in the densely populated neighborhood now dotted with burned buildings.
Police say a 12-year-old boy set a fire on April 29 in a recently condemned nine-unit complex at 105-111 Blake St. The fire heavily damaged three buildings and displaced 75 residents.
On Friday, a fire allegedly set by another 12-year-old boy heavily damaged more apartments in four buildings on Bartlett and Pierce streets. More than 100 more people were left homeless.
Investigators have not determined the cause of Monday’s fire, said Fire Chief Paul LeClair. No one was seriously injured. Firefighters took nearly four hours to bring the flames under control, he said.
Police Chief Michael Bussiere said police have questioned witnesses, but have not yet determined how the fire started. Lewiston police are being assisted by the state Fire Marshal’s Office and investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“The fact we’ve had three major fires downtown in a week is a major concern for us,” Bussiere said.
He said his department has stepped up patrols in the neighborhood and is taking other measures to prevent future fires, but he declined to elaborate.
“The hammer is coming down,” Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “We’re not going to put up with this anymore.”
In response to the fires, the city has established a public priority response area, a roughly 35-block area around the fire sites. Vacant properties in the area will be checked and secured by the city’s staff, officials said. Representatives of federal and nonprofit aid agencies have met to coordinate services, and the city will issue 30-day dump passes to let people dispose of bulky or unwieldy waste.
The city will host a housing fair Wednesday to help resettle the scores of residents who have been displaced, and will work with nonprofits to collect household items and infant supplies, including 15 cribs.
Holly Stover, acting director of multicultural affairs for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said 27 families have been displaced by the fires, including 23 large refugee families.
Gov. Paul LePage, who grew up in Lewiston, will visit the city Tuesday to meet with Macdonald and view the fire damage. State lawmakers from Lewiston have asked the governor to declare an emergency and release funds from the governor’s emergency fund to help Lewiston residents who have lost their homes in the fires.
Phil Nadeau, the deputy city administrator, said city officials are working to determine the cost of responding to the three fires.
Monday’s fire was spotted by a police sergeant who was on patrol in the neighborhood, Bussiere said. First responders quickly evacuated nearby buildings. During the evacuations, an officer was injured slightly while kicking in a door.
When firefighters arrived, fire was showing from the rear of the buildings at 114 and 118 Bartlett St., LeClair said. He said the buildings are a total loss and will be demolished.
Gil Arsenault, Lewiston’s director of planning and code enforcement, said the buildings are owned by LJM LLC, a company operated by a Lewiston landlord who has significant holdings.
“He was mothballing them,” Arsenault said of the unoccupied structures.
Lewiston fire investigator Paul Ouellette said police have questioned two people in connection with the fire.
Shannon McWilliams, who lives nearby on Pierce Street, said she watched as police took a man, identified as Brian Morin Sr., into custody after the blaze began.
Morin, 29, who was released later Monday morning, said he was returning to an apartment where he was staying with friends near the fire site about 3 a.m. Monday, around when the fire began.
He said he tried rousing people in a neighboring building, but couldn’t wake anyone. Soon after, police arrived and he was taken into custody for questioning. He was released about seven hours later.
“(The police) asked why I did it, and what I used to set it,” said Morin, who was convicted in 2001 of unlawful sexual conduct.
He said he will take a polygraph test Tuesday and believes it will show his innocence. “I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do,” he said.
Officials would not say whether Morin has been ruled out as a suspect, or whether anyone else has been identified.
Nadeau, the deputy city administrator, praised the community response to the fire and encouraged people to continue to pass tips to police.
“The message needs to be clear. … We are exhausting every opportunity and every resource to make sure people feel safe,” he said. “We hope people who live in this city can go to bed tonight feeling safe.”
But people who live in the neighborhood said they don’t feel safe.
Jenn Ahlberg, who watched from a stoop Monday morning as firefighters mopped up on Bartlett Street, said she was shocked by the timing of the fires.
“It makes me wonder which building is going to be next,” she said.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: