SANFORD — A fast-moving fire damaged or destroyed six buildings in the heart of Sanford on Thursday afternoon, sending at least four people to the hospital.

Witnesses said they smelled smoke long before seeing flames in a pile of trash on the back porch of one of the buildings, according to the state Fire Marshal’s Office. The flames spread to four buildings on one side of Island Avenue before jumping across the street and damaging two others, officials said.

“Eyewitnesses told us the fire started outside on a back porch (at 33 Island Ave.),” State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said. “Some people said they could smell smoke for an hour prior to seeing the fire, which would lead us to believe that it was a smoldering fire. That would suggest it could have been started by a discarded cigarette.”

A team of four fire marshals was expected to spend the night sifting through rubble in the burned out neighborhood and interviewing witnesses before trying to pinpoint the fire’s cause on Friday, Thomas said. Two of the buildings at 33 Island Ave. and 35 Island Ave. were expected to be torn down overnight because they pose a safety hazard.

Four people were transported to local hospitals, including one with a cardiac-related condition. Fire Chief Steven Benotti said one person suffered smoke inhalation and two experienced anxiety. He did not have further information about their conditions.

Video courtesy of Amber Crocker via Facebook

Sanford Police Chief Thomas P. Connolly Jr. said police officers and firefighters escorted students from the nearby Lafayette Elementary School to buses after classes ended Thursday. The chief estimated the school is about 150 yards from the fire scene. If the wind had been blowing in the direction of the school, the students would have been evacuated, but he said they were never in danger.

“It was a nasty fire,” Connolly said.

ESCAPE FROM A SECOND-STORY WINDOW

Benotti said the fire, which was first reported at 1:15 p.m, put firefighters in danger because power lines were burning and falling into the street.

No firefighters were injured, but power to the neighborhood had to be shut down for several hours, Benotti said. Firefighters used a drone with a video feed to see the sprawling fire from the air and help direct the fire hoses that poured water into the burning buildings.

Benotti estimated that more than 100 firefighters from 25 agencies in Maine and New Hampshire responded to the scene.

A woman who lived at 33 Island Ave., where the fire is believed to have started, said she had to climb out a second-story window to escape. She tried to get her dog, a shepherd-husky mix, to follow her but believes he died in the fire.

“I was sleeping,” said Victoria Cann, 28. “I woke up and the AC had turned off. I turned over and looked at it and saw an orange glow from behind the blinds.”

She said she called her dog, Alex, and first tried to escape through a door but the heat was too intense. She then climbed out the second-story window and down a fire escape ladder.

Cann was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation, but left in frustration because officials wouldn’t tell her what was going on, she said.

She returned to the scene of the fire, and Thursday evening was sitting about a block away from the burnt-out building, waiting for the Red Cross to help her find a place to stay for the night.

TWO BUILDINGS DESTROYED

Red Cross spokeswoman Ann Kim said Thursday evening that a disaster action team would be helping a family of five and a family of three displaced by the fire. The Red Cross will also be providing food and other essentials to the fire victims.

According to the Sanford Assessor’s Office, the property at 33 Island Ave. is owned by Harry and Geraldine Farris. The city sends correspondence and tax bills to the Farrises at CVI Development Corp. in Epping, New Hampshire.

Fran Husson, who works in the city’s Assessors Office, said the property at 35 Island Ave. is owned by York County Community Action. Correspondence sent to that organization goes to the Sanford Housing Authority.

Both 33 Island Ave. and 35 Island Ave. were destroyed.

Connolly, the police chief, confirmed that Sanford police have answered calls for service at 33 Island Ave. that involved drug use and drug dealing, but denied that there was a meth lab in the building.

“It is not the apogee of the drug problem in Sanford,” the chief said. “There are other places in Sanford that have drug problems as well.”

SECOND MAJOR FIRE IN CITY THIS YEAR

The neighborhood is a tightly packed mix of neat single-family homes and some less well-maintained small apartment buildings.

Kathleen Ouellette, who owns one of the buildings that was damaged, said she thinks the city should tear down the vacant, single-family home across Island Avenue from her duplex. It was heavily damaged by the fire and she said rats have been going in and out of the building for months.

Deb Marchand, who was scheduled to move into 34 Island Ave., a three-family building across the street, said one of the women who lives in 35 Island Ave. is pregnant and also has two children, ages 3 and 5. Marchand was supposed to move into her apartment on Nov. 1 but said damage to her building and the vacant building next door would delay that.

William Southworth Jr., who lives diagonally across from the street from where the fire is believed to have begun, said he smelled smoke early Thursday afternoon and looked out to see a ball of flame about midway up 33 Island Ave.

He said he quickly grabbed his pets – a dog and a turtle – and took them outside his second-floor apartment.

When he returned for his rabbit, Southworth said, the door was hot to the touch.

By early Thursday evening, he was moving them back in, apparently in good shape. Southworth said he planned to stay in his apartment Thursday night and hoped the electricity would be turned back on.

Thursday’s fire is the second major fire to have affected this York County city in 2017. In June, a massive, fast-moving fire tore through a long-abandoned mill building on River Street, destroying the mill and a link to the city’s textile history.

Sanford firefighters said the Stenton Trust Mill fire was one of the largest fires they have had to fight in recent memory. Three boys, all under the age of 14, have been charged with arson in connection with that blaze.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]