SANFORD — State investigators say they can’t determine the cause of a fire that destroyed three houses and damaged three others Thursday, but do not believe it was the result of a criminal act.

Maine Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said investigators from his office inspected the damage after the fire was doused Thursday evening and again Friday morning. The charred hulks of two apartment buildings were pulled down Thursday night because they were a public safety hazard.

Thomas said there were no signs of accelerants, such as gasoline, around the buildings, but investigators were able to determine that the fire started in the front of 33 Island Ave., either on the ground floor or on a second-story deck at the front of the building. The official cause, Thomas said, will be listed as “undetermined.”

No one was seriously hurt in the fire, which drew firefighters from about a dozen towns in York County and New Hampshire. Four people were taken to a local hospital – one for possible heart problems, two for smoke inhalation and one for anxiety – and all were released within a few hours.

The fire broke out in the three-story apartment building at 33 Island Ave. early Thursday afternoon. Fanned by gusty winds, it spread to adjacent structures at 35 Island Ave. and 28 Thompson St., and then to a vacant two-story apartment building across the street at 34 Island Ave. That building was being prepared for tenants, but was declared uninhabitable after the fire because of damage to the roof and a second-floor porch, and smoke and water damage throughout the building. Friday morning, a worker was patching the section of the roof scorched by fire and the front windows were boarded up.

TRASH’S ROLE IN FIRE UNCLEAR

Two other buildings on Thompson Street, which intersects Island Avenue, also were damaged by the fire. They sustained damage because of the smoke and to their siding because of the heat, but were habitable Thursday night. The vacant single-family house at 28 Thompson St. was heavily damaged and will need to be rebuilt.

City firefighters were kept busy Friday when they had to respond to a fire at 42 Cottage St. that destroyed the third floor of an apartment building and likely caused water damage on the first and second floors, a fire official said.

There were no injuries reported and no tally for how many people might have been displaced, Capt. Dwight Emmons said.

The Cottage Street and Island Avenue fires were about a half mile apart and were unrelated, Emmons said.

The city had sent a notice to the owner of 33 Island Ave., Harry Farris, on Tuesday, telling him that trash in and around the building needed to be cleared out and that the front steps needed to be repaired. Eric Farris, who manages the properties for his grandfather, told city officials this week that the trash would be removed by Saturday and the damaged steps repaired within two weeks.

Thomas said investigators don’t know if the trash was a contributing factor in the fire, because of the extent of the damage.

Ian P. Houseal, Sanford’s director of community development, said none of the other buildings involved in the fire had any pending code violations.

Even though the buildings at 33 and 35 Island Ave. were torn down Thursday night and Friday morning because they were a public safety hazard, the city plans to hold a hearing Monday to make an official declaration that the structures were beyond repair and eligible to be demolished.

The apartment building at 35 Island Ave. was owned by York County Community Action.

Barbara Crider, the group’s executive director, said it was used to house families who were getting job training or educational help, including one family comprising a pregnant single mother with two children. Crider declined to discuss the other family, citing confidentiality.

Although York County Community Action owned the building, it was managed by the Sanford Housing Authority. Crider said it was well-run and well-maintained.

She said both families have been put into temporary housing while the agency’s staff tries to find a permanent location for them.

“There’s just been a real outpouring of people donating furniture and clothing,” Crider said. “The community has been great.”

MONEY RAISED FOR FIRE VICTIMS

A Sanford church, Curtis Lake Christian Church, has been raising money for the victims of the fire and planned to hold a clothing drive Friday night.

The building at 33 Island Ave. was known as a location for buying drugs, Eric Farris acknowledged, and a tenant there, Joshua Noorda, was arrested last month for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. Lafayette School, an elementary school, is located about a block from the building.

Derek Gerrish, who runs Journey House, which provides transitional housing for men leaving jail, said that before he got sober he used to buy drugs from tenants at the building.

“This is a known spot for drugs in our community,” he said.

Sanford Police Thomas Connolly Jr. confirmed that.

“We were aware of the address,” he said, but added, “It’s not the only house in Sanford we have (drug) issues with and it won’t be the last.”

Farris was not sure who was living in 33 Island Ave. at the time of the fire.

The first floor was vacant and Noorda’s girlfriend was living on the second floor, Farris said. The third-floor tenants had recently moved out, he said, but some of their friends stayed behind, even though Farris had gone to the house two weeks ago with a police officer to have them removed.

Farris said the officer had suggested the couple be allowed to stay while they looked for another place to live. The officer was supposed to find out whether the couple left within a few days, but Farris said he never heard back.

Amanda Locke said she was in the third-floor apartment when the fire broke out and barely escaped with her husband and their two dogs.

She said the building had working fire alarms that were blaring “Fire! Fire!” as the couple escaped.

The Farrises also own the house at 28 Thompson St. Eric Farris said state and city officials told him it can be rebuilt, despite damage from the fire and smoke and water. Firefighters broke a hole in the roof to get to a fire in the attic.

The building has been vacant for months, he said.

Farris said all his tenants had leases and he has tried to be responsive to maintenance concerns. He said he has about 50 other rental units – another single-family home in Sanford and dozens of units in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Farris said he tries to monitor his tenants’ activities, but under the law, there’s only so much he can do. For instance, Farris said, he never received complaints or had problems with Noorda, although Sanford police told Farris they were watching the building for signs of drug dealing before the arrest.

“Being a landlord is a complicated beast,” he said. “None of this is good for anyone; it’s all bad.”

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

[email protected]