February 26, 2010

Fire razes former mill in downtown Oakland

DOUG HARLOW

— By

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Staff photo by Andy Molloy OAKLAND MILL FIRE: Sidney Fire Chief Richard Jandreau directs a stream of water Sunday morning onto the smoldering remains of the Cascade Woolen Mill in Oakland.

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Morning Sentinel

OAKLAND — A fast-moving fire Sunday morning destroyed the 127-year-old former Cascade Woolen Mill in the heart of downtown Oakland.

The five-story building collapsed in flames as crews from more than a dozen communities battled the blaze and frigid temperatures, said Oakland Fire Chief David Coughlin. Flames were an estimated 50 to 60 feet high and reportedly could be seen from Winslow, Coughlin said.

''It all came down,'' he said. ''It had a good head start on us. The whole mill is collapsed,'' but no one was injured.

K-D Display & Design, a woodworking company, was the lone occupant of the wooden structure. Fire officials said everything appeared to have been destroyed.

Another building nearby, housing Woodsmiths, also a woodworking firm, was saved, as was a steel building that K-D used.

Kenneth Macmaster, an investigator from the state Fire Marshal's Office, was on scene Sunday morning, but said officials may never know the origin of the blaze.

The town recently had received a $200,000 federal grant to clean up the land.

Built in 1882, the woolen mill closed in 1997. It employed more than 150 people at its peak in the 1990s.

The first call reporting the fire came into the communications center at 12:28 a.m. Sunday. Soon after, more calls were received as people reported additional fires on neighboring streets as embers fell to the ground, Coughlin said.

The radiant heat from the blaze was so powerful that it cracked windshields on two fire trucks parked 175 feet from the crumbling woolen mill, firefighter Mark Stevens said from the scene. He said his face had what looked like a sunburn from exposure to the heat.

Assistant Oakland Fire Chief Chuck Bridges, who was at the scene all night, said it didn't take long for flames to consume the old wooden building. He said the fire started on the north side of the building and moved forward, south, toward Kennedy Memorial Drive.

The mill is located near the fire station, the town office and police station.

''The building is totally burned flat,'' Bridges said. ''There was woodworking equipment on the second and third floors and old machinery in the basement. It was fully involved when we got there, I mean completely involved. There was a tower, the tower fell just as we got there. The whole building was made of wood, except for the foundation.''

By midmorning Sunday, all that remained of Cascade Woolen Mill was a steaming, smoky pile of charred timbers and twisted metal.

Fire crews from Sydney and Oakland continued to soak the smoldering heap throughout the morning to prevent flare-ups. All of downtown Oakland sat Sunday in a low haze of smoke.

Coughlin, the fire chief, said once Oakland firefighters saw the extent of the blaze, they called for mutual aid from surrounding towns. Crews from as far away as Pittston, Clinton and Skowhegan responded, in addition to aerial ladder trucks from Oakland, Waterville and Winslow.

''We had fire showing from just about every window and door in the place,'' Coughlin said. ''There was no collapse yet as we arrived on scene, but once it went through the roof we had flames 50, 60 feet in the air.''

He said there were about 105 firefighters at the scene.

Coughlin said there is one narrow road leading to the mill on the Kennedy Memorial Drive side, which hampered their efforts. Town road crews were called out to apply sand and salt to keep the tankers moving because that road and another access road on the north side iced over, he said.

''We had ice everywhere because of the cold temperatures,'' he said.

Coughlin said the flying embers from the fire also could have been a problem.

''Had this been the middle of August we definitely could have had some spot fires around town -- we had embers flying all around town,'' the chief said. ''We did get a few calls for separate, small fires, but nothing of any significance.

Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen said Sunday that the town of Oakland holds the mortgage on the former woolen mill, but the tenant is responsible for insurance coverage.

Michael Dye of Hallowell, who owns K-D Display & Design, which makes hardwood displays and store fixtures, said he was fully insured.

''There was quite a bit of manufacturing equipment in the building,'' Dye said. ''Firefighters managed to save the steel building, and there was some in there, but the bulk of our manufacturing and shipping and packaging was in the wooden structure.''

Dye said he was starting his 11th year in the former woolen mill.

''It was a tough year, but things had turned up in the last quarter and, this year, so far, we've been real busy; it was a real shame,'' Dye said. ''It's a real mess.

''From what I heard from people who were there, it burned so quickly that by the time I was there, the bulk of the structure was already gone and that was only about an hour after the first report,'' he said. ''They worked incredibly hard on an extremely cold night, under horrible conditions and they did a fantastic job. Each and every one of those 12 towns should be proud of the people that are protecting their property.''

Dye said he will decide over the next few days if the company will relocate, and where.

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