WATERVILLE — Rangers from the Maine Forest Service Wednesday were at an apartment building on Morrill Avenue, trying to determine the cause of the blaze that left the building uninhabitable the previous day.

Fourteen people were displaced and multiple cats died in the fire, which broke out just before 2 p.m. Tuesday at the three-story building at 13 Morrill Ave. on the corner of West Street.

Waterville fire Chief Shawn Esler said the Maine Forest Service is the primary investigator of the fire and was called in because officials believe the fire may have started outside the building. Esler and Waterville firefighters also were at the scene Wednesday.

“It definitely started on the outside of the building and moved to the inside of the building,” Esler said.

Asked if fire officials consider the fire to be suspicious, Esler said: “I do not. At this time, no.”

Forest Rangers Matt Bennett, Brett LeBlanc and Lisa Byers inspected the scene early Wednesday and took photos. They looked at several locations around the outside of the building, including a blackened area on a wood fence along the West Street side of the property.

Maine Forest Rangers Lisa Byers, leaning, and Matt Bennett inspect the area around 13 Morrill Ave. Tuesday while investigating the fire that gutted the three-story apartment house. The rangers were called in because the fire apparently started outside the dwelling. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

Kent Nelson, forest ranger specialist with the Maine Forest Service’s office in Augusta, said Wednesday afternoon in a phone interview that the cause was undetermined at that time.

“It’s still under investigation, and I think this may take several days for the investigation to be completed,” Nelson said. “We’re glad that there were no injuries reported, and I guess the fire department did a great job of saving the structure.”

The Forest Service so far this year has dealt with 176 fires that burned 140 acres, according to Nelson, who cautioned people to be careful when burning brush and other debris. Spring is a very dry time of year and a busier fire season than summer is because of dry, dead vegetation from winter that does not hold moisture, he said.

Meanwhile, Aaron Brunelle, a first-floor tenant whom Esler credited with helping to get other tenants out of the building Tuesday, said that he looked out of his window and saw flames on the fence. Brunelle then ran to other apartments to get tenants out, including three children and their dog on the third floor, according to Esler.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, the dog got scared and ran back up to the third floor apartment. Brunelle was winded by that time, so 16-year-old Damien Peavey, 16, of Clinton, headed up the stairs and rescued the dog.

Peavey’s mother, Cory Peavey, said they were driving by the house when they saw the smoke, and Damien immediately wanted to help.

“All I did was stop the car and he jumped right out and ran towards the house,” she said. “When he heard there were animals still inside, he ran up the stairs.”

About 40 firefighters from Waterville, Winslow, Oakland, Fairfield and Albion responded to the scene Tuesday and worked in high winds that caused the fire to spread rapidly, according to Esler. The Skowhegan Fire Department’s Rapid Intervention Team also responded. That team is dedicated to the search and rescue of other firefighters in distress.

Vassalboro and China Village firefighters stood by at fire stations of those who responded to the fire, which was under control by about 5:30 p.m.

The building is owned by Philip Joseph, according to Esler.

 

HOUSE HOLDS MEMORIES

The large three-family home at 13 Morrill Ave. holds a lot of memories for Bill Mitchell, who lived there with his family, including parents Paul and Yvette Mitchell, from 1961, when he was born, to 1974.

Bill Mitchell, who owns GHM Insurance downtown, said Wednesday that he drove to the fire scene Wednesday and spoke with firefighters. Seeing the building ravaged by fire triggered a lot of memories.

Maine Forest Rangers, from left, Matt Bennett, Lisa Byers and Brett LeBlanc inspect the area around 13 Morrill Ave. Tuesday while investigating the fire that gutted the three-story apartment house. The rangers were called in because the fire apparently started outside the dwelling. Morning Sentinel photo by Amy Calder

“It was such an awesome neighborhood,” he recalled. “That was my parents’ first house. We had the first floor and two bedrooms on the second floor. I can remember special childhood memories, growing up in that house.”

That neighborhood in the 1960s was a pretty special place, according to Mitchell, who named the Re, Loubier, Sweeney, Leighton and Ayotte families as some of those who lived in the area. All the families knew each other and looked out for each other, according to Mitchell, who said he has kept in touch with several of them over the years.

“Peter and Betty Re were just wonderful, wonderful people,” he said. “The Leightons’ oldest son, Mike, and I, and Res’ son, Phil — the three of us were best friends. We were buddies growing up on Morrill Avenue.”

Mitchell recalled that his great aunt, Diana, whom he referred to as “Didi,” babysat him when he was a young boy living in the house. One of his earliest memories was sitting with her in his second-floor bedroom window facing south on West Street, watching a torrential downpour with wind, thunder and lightning.  The elm trees on the streets were bending and breaking in the wind.

“I can sit here as if it happened yesterday, watching that storm occur,” he said. “It was such a great neighborhood and I’m really sorry for the people who lived there who are now displaced by the fire. We certainly wish them the best, and I hope that they’re able to carry on in their lives.”

 

RED CROSS HELPING

The American Red Cross of Northern New England is helping the 14 tenants who were displaced by the fire, ensuring their immediate needs including food, shelter and other essentials are met, according to a news release.

“In keeping with coronavirus safety protocols, the volunteers made contact with displaced residents and made arrangements virtually and practiced social distancing to deliver emergency financial assistance on Tuesday,” the release, dated Wednesday, says.

“Emergencies don’t stop,” Red Cross Disaster Program Manager Eric Lynes says in the release. “Our dedicated volunteers continue to provide help and hope in the face of emergencies. The Red Cross is using modified procedures to ensure safety and social distancing as we deliver our humanitarian mission to people in need.”

The Red Cross will stay in contact with the tenants to provide community referrals as they begin their road to recovery, the release says.

It offers tips for home fire preparedness at www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies.html.

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