Thursday, December 12, 2013
By Amy Calder firstname.lastname@example.org
WATERVILLE — The fate of a burned-out downtown building remains unknown as the owner waits for his insurance company to issue an assessment.
A building damaged by fire in late May on Main Street in downtown Waterville remains unihabitated.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
Owner John Weeks could not say Friday whether the building at 18 Main St. is repairable or will be razed.
"The insurance company hasn't made any decisions, and I haven't made any decisions either, so I don't know what's going to happen with that building," Weeks said. "Really, that's all the information I have."
Fire tore through the upper floors of the four-story brick building May 3, leaving four apartment tenants homeless.
A tattoo business and a wireless phone service lost a significant amount of equipment and were forced to move out of the damaged space.
The State Fire Marshal's Office later deemed the cause of the fire to be undetermined. Fire investigator Sgt. Tim York said officials were confident the fire started on an exterior third-floor deck outside an apartment. Tenants lived on the third and fourth floors, but the second floor was vacant.
Weeks had turned off the building's sprinkler system in 2005, but made an agreement with fire officials that if people were living in the building, he would turn it back on.
Weeks left the system off, according to Fire Chief David LaFountain, even though the Fire Department sent him a letter that told him to turn the sprinklers back on because tenants were living in the building again.
"If the sprinkler had been on in the building, that fire would never have gotten that big," LaFountain said.
Three ladder, or aerial, firetrucks from Waterville, Winslow and Oakland were used to fight the fire.
"In the last 30 years, I can't remember when we (used) three aerials," he said.
LaFountain estimated the cost to fight the fire was tens of thousands of dollars.
On Friday, "No Trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs were on the front of the 18 Main St. building. Third- and fourth-floor windows broken out during firefighting remained open. Rubble was visible in the first-floor space that formerly housed INK-4-LIFE, which has since moved across the street.
On the back of the brick building, charred wood from an upper floor balcony hung over an alley.
LaFountain said he does not think the site meets the definition of a dangerous building.
"I haven't seen any evidence to jump to that level," he said.
Since the fire, city officials have formed a downtown fire safety committee that is looking at buildings and discussing adopting an ordinance that would define who would enforce certain safety violations, including ones related to sprinkler systems.
LaFountain said one of the key questions that needs to be answered is who has the authority to do something when there are code violations.
"I think the next committee meeting is probably going to be giving the council and the mayor information on what can and can't be done," he said.
The committee also will consider what types of sprinkler systems must be in buildings with various uses, whether unoccupied buildings must have sprinklers and who is responsible for enforcing the rules. The panel also will discuss whether sprinklers are required in buildings that are unoccupied but share walls with other buildings.
At the committee's first meeting, LaFountain reported that the most common fire code violations, about 28 percent, seen during inspections in the last year were related to blocked and locked exits, hardware that did not work or related problems.
The second-most-common violations had to do with electrical problems such as unsafe or exposed wiring and improper use of extension cords.
He said sites either pass inspection, pass with corrections or fail, with fire officials requiring the most serious violations be fixed right away.
"Normally, we go for voluntary compliance," he said.
The committee plans to meet Wednesday at the fire station with City Solicitor William Lee and Rich McCarthy, assistant state fire marshal.
Besides LaFountain, committee members are Mayor Karen Heck; Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4; Councilor Eliza Mathias, D-Ward 6; Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins; business owner Charlie Giguere; Jennifer Olsen, executive director of Waterville Main Street; and Jeffrey LaCasse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District.
Amy Calder — 861-9247