David Smith, the owner of Town & Country Cabinets in Gorham, was inside his business Tuesday morning, discussing the day’s schedule, when a passing driver stopped to say that smoke was pouring out of the far end of the building.
Smith and three other workers hustled outside to wait for firefighters, watching as the intense fire spread beneath the metal roof. The building, dating back to the 1800s, had housed the family-owned business since Smith’s parents converted it from a blueberry canning factory in 1981.
Smith watched as smoke billowed from the wooden building and the fire destroyed a large amount of the wood that would have become furniture, cabinets and other high-end pieces.
“That section over there was really getting hot,” Smith said, pointing to the south end of the building. “You could see the roof was getting really hot and it was changing color and getting really black.”
The building had weathered calamity in the past. In 1991, nearby Johnson Brook overflowed during Hurricane Bob, flooding the building with more than 3 feet of water. Afterward, the building was moved to higher ground, where it has been ever since, Smith said.
There would be no saving the building Tuesday. The fire destroyed large parts of the structure, said Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre.
Smith’s parents bought the woodworking business in 1976 and operated it on Middle Street in Portland before they converted the building at 420 Fort Hill Road in Gorham. Smith and his sister Carol Short took on increasing responsibility over the years.
The business makes custom cabinetry and specialty furniture such as occasional tables, bookcases and mirror frames. It also produces Shaker-style furniture for Sturbridge Yankee Workshop, an online retailer that sells a Shaker end table made by Town & Country Cabinets for $200.
The business has employed as many as 15 people, but now has only four workers, including Smith and his sister, he said.
At the time of the fire, Smith was building a set of kitchen cabinets and working on pieces of furniture for Sturbridge Yankee Workshop.
When the workers were told of the fire, the audible fire alarm still hadn’t sounded, Smith said. It wasn’t clear whether the alarm that contacts the fire department directly had summoned firefighters.
The initial wave of firefighters numbered only eight because the fire department, primarily volunteers, had trouble mustering firefighters at 8 a.m. Many were headed for their own workplaces or getting their children ready for school, said Lefebvre. By the time firefighters connected to hydrants, the building was blazing.
“We had fire from one end of the building to the other” when he arrived, Lefebvre said. Fire officials sounded a third alarm to call extra help.
The fire may have started around an exhaust fan on the second floor, where smoke was initially spotted, Lefebvre said. Firefighters eventually found that area packed with wood. The fire is not considered suspicious, and nobody was injured.
Smith said the building had no sprinklers because there had been no public water service until recent years, when the town extended municipal water lines.
Firefighters got inside and thought they had the fire knocked down, but it kept rekindling, Lefebvre said. They learned that the metal roof had been added on top of another roof, and the fire was spreading unseen in the space in between the two.
The contents of the building also fueled the fire, Lefebvre said, including the wood, stains and coating materials that were being used.
Most of the stains and coatings were stored in a fireproof room, Smith said.
Eventually, firefighters were pushed back by the flames and heat and had to move outside to keep fighting the fire.
After the flames were brought under control, crews used foam to suffocate the fire that remained in some of the voids within the building.
Firefighters worked at the scene until about 5 p.m., with busy Fort Hill Road — part of Route 114 — closed for much of the day.
An excavator was brought in to pull the roof off the second floor because fire officials worried that the building was too unstable for firefighters to get inside to extinguish smoldering areas.
Smith said he doesn’t know how long it will take to get the business running again. It will depend in part on how the equipment and tools fared in the fire. “There’s a lot of equipment, some of it very, very, very old,” Smith said. By the end of the day, family members and friends were working to salvage equipment, which Lefebvre said had been saved.
The equipment includes a special router that uses computer controls to make precise three-dimensional cuts that can be replicated repeatedly to make identical pieces of furniture.
Town records show the 7,000-square-foot building had an assessed value of $126,000 in 2012, although its replacement cost was listed as $225,000. Much of the value was in the equipment.