May 7, 2013

New fire puts Lewiston on alert

Police add patrols and city officials secure buildings after the third blaze in eight days in a downtown area.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

and Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

LEWISTON — City officials are checking vacant properties and stepping up police patrols to try to prevent another fire in a downtown neighborhood where three major fires have gutted nine buildings and left nearly 200 people homeless since April 29.

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Firefighters work at the Bartlett Street apartment buildings that burned Monday morning.

Photo by Matt Byrne / Staff Writer

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Lewiston officials plan to check and secure vacant properties in the area within the pink line, and police will step up patrols, in the wake of three fires in eight days.

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A fire burned two vacant four-story apartment buildings on Bartlett Street early Monday morning, setting already shaky residents on edge in the densely populated neighborhood now dotted with burned buildings.

Police say a 12-year-old boy set a fire on April 29 in a recently condemned nine-unit complex at 105-111 Blake St. The fire heavily damaged three buildings and displaced 75 residents.

On Friday, a fire allegedly set by another 12-year-old boy heavily damaged more apartments in four buildings on Bartlett and Pierce streets. More than 100 more people were left homeless.

Investigators have not determined the cause of Monday's fire, said Fire Chief Paul LeClair. No one was seriously injured. Firefighters took nearly four hours to bring the flames under control, he said.

Police Chief Michael Bussiere said police have questioned witnesses, but have not yet determined how the fire started. Lewiston police are being assisted by the state Fire Marshal's Office and investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"The fact we've had three major fires downtown in a week is a major concern for us," Bussiere said.

He said his department has stepped up patrols in the neighborhood and is taking other measures to prevent future fires, but he declined to elaborate.

"The hammer is coming down," Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said at a news conference Monday afternoon. "We're not going to put up with this anymore."

In response to the fires, the city has established a public priority response area, a roughly 35-block area around the fire sites. Vacant properties in the area will be checked and secured by the city's staff, officials said. Representatives of federal and nonprofit aid agencies have met to coordinate services, and the city will issue 30-day dump passes to let people dispose of bulky or unwieldy waste.

The city will host a housing fair Wednesday to help resettle the scores of residents who have been displaced, and will work with nonprofits to collect household items and infant supplies, including 15 cribs.

Holly Stover, acting director of multicultural affairs for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said 27 families have been displaced by the fires, including 23 large refugee families.

Gov. Paul LePage, who grew up in Lewiston, will visit the city Tuesday to meet with Macdonald and view the fire damage. State lawmakers from Lewiston have asked the governor to declare an emergency and release funds from the governor's emergency fund to help Lewiston residents who have lost their homes in the fires.

Phil Nadeau, the deputy city administrator, said city officials are working to determine the cost of responding to the three fires.

Monday's fire was spotted by a police sergeant who was on patrol in the neighborhood, Bussiere said. First responders quickly evacuated nearby buildings. During the evacuations, an officer was injured slightly while kicking in a door.

When firefighters arrived, fire was showing from the rear of the buildings at 114 and 118 Bartlett St., LeClair said. He said the buildings are a total loss and will be demolished.

Gil Arsenault, Lewiston's director of planning and code enforcement, said the buildings are owned by LJM LLC, a company operated by a Lewiston landlord who has significant holdings.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Firefighters work at the scene of a fire that destroyed two vacant apartment buildings on Bartlett Street in Lewiston on Monday morning. Fire Chief Paul LeClair said it took firefighters nearly four hours to bring the flames under control.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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Firefighters spray water on what's left of the roof of a vacant apartment building on Bartlett Street in Lewiston on Monday.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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Firefighters spray water on the roof of a vacant apartment building on Bartlett Street in Lewiston on Monday.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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A firefighter checks for hot spots on the front of a vacant apartment building on Bartlett Street in downtown Lewiston on Monday.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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Authorities say more than 100 firefighters responded to the scene of a blaze on Bartlett Street reported at about 3 a.m. Monday.

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Police and firefighters are on the scene of a three-alarm fire in downtown Lewiston on Monday morning.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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