MILO — When Shemekia Robshaw first smelled the smoke early Sunday morning, she figured someone in the neighborhood had started up a wood stove on a chilly night.
But when the smell grew stronger, she was prompted to look outside.
“The smoke was pretty thick out there, kind of like fog,” she said Sunday. “That’s when I called [the Fire Department].”
Within hours, Robshaw, who is four months pregnant, her husband, Ronald Robshaw, and five of their children had lost everything they owned.
The building they bought four years ago, which housed their arcade business on the first floor and their living quarters on the second story, was among five destroyed when a stubborn fire swept through downtown Milo, a small Piscataquis County community of about 2,000 residents.
No injuries were reported.
Town Manager Jeff Gahagan said the fire was reported about 3:20 a.m. Fire and ambulance crews from Milo, Bradford, Brownville, Charleston, Corinth, Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford, LaGrange, Sangerville and Sebec were called to Main Street to fight the fire but were unable to prevent its spread up Main Street.
That was largely because the buildings were wooden, about a century old, and built so close together that some had common walls.
Gahagan said the fire apparently started at 26 Main St. in the building that houses Hobknobbers Pub, which opened less than a month ago in the storefront formerly occupied by Valerie Jean’s, An American Bistro.
From there, the fire slowly advanced up Main Street, consuming four more buildings: one housing the Milo Flower Shop; a former movie theater building most recently used for storage; the Robshaws’ building which also housed their pool hall and arcade, the Spot Game Room; and the Milo True Value Hardware Store, which consisted of three sections, two of them wooden and one made from concrete blocks.
The fire was stopped at the concrete section of the hardware store, just before the Milo House of Pizza, located at 60 Main St. Though the pizzeria and three apartments in the same building did not appear to have fire damage, Gahagan and local fire officials said, it likely had heavy smoke and water damage. Gahagan said he thought 10 to 12 people were affected by the fire.
“I didn’t think it was gonna go that far [up Main Street] but it did,” Shemekia Robshaw said.
After making sure the children — ages 4, 7, 9, 13 and 15 — were out safely, there was little else Robshaw could do other than call her husband home from his job in Brewer, almost an hour’s drive away.
“I just watched it burn down,” she said of the family’s home and business.
“This is very devastating,” she said. “We pretty much lost everything. We just bought a $200 crib. We got out with the clothes on our backs. What I have on is all I have at this moment.”
Making matters worse is that the Robshaws did not have insurance on their building. The cost of heating their building last winter and other expenses forced the family to make some tough choices, she said.
“We thought we’d be OK without insurance for a year,” she said.
Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said late Sunday afternoon that the fire apparently started underneath an exterior stairway behind the pub at 26 Main St. He said investigators were still working to determine the cause and the investigation would involve additional interviews which could continue into today.
He declined to say if the cause appeared to be suspicious.
“All I can say is that we haven’t ruled anything out,” he said.
Most of the crews from out of town were allowed to leave about 1:30 p.m., though Milo police and fire personnel were expected to remain on Main Street overnight to watch for flare-ups and make sure the scene remained secure for investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, according to Gahagan.
Gahagan said he was grateful no one was injured, but noted the fire struck the heart of the small town’s business district.
“We are just in the process of a downtown revitalization effort,” he said. “In fact, there was a public hearing scheduled for Monday night, so this is just tragic.”
Upon learning of the fire, Gov. John Baldacci released the following statement:
“Our first priority is always to make sure that we protect human life. Fire crews from a number of towns have responded to help fight this devastating blaze in downtown Milo. The State Fire Marshal is on the scene, and the state will provide any support that the firefighters need.
“At this point, we know at least five businesses have been impacted and at least a third of downtown has been burned. Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development will send specialists to Milo to help the town and businesses recover,” Baldacci said.
“This is a terrible fire, but Milo and its residents will have the support of the state as they work to repair their community and recover from this disaster,” Baldacci said. “We will help Milo rebuild.”
In addition to the Robshaws’ apartment, there were three others above and behind the pizzeria. John Ware was among the tenants displaced by the fire. He said he awoke early Sunday morning to firefighters pounding at his door, urging him to get out.
“I was right in a dead sleep,” Ware said.
He first headed over to the home of his mother, Louise Wheeler, who lives in a senior housing complex just up the hill from his apartment. He and his mother returned to Main Street later in the morning, joining the hundreds who stopped by to watch firefighters at work.
Ware doesn’t know when or if he and the other occupants will be allowed to return.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Gahagan said Sunday that a dollar estimate for the fire losses was not immediately available and likely would not be known until today at the earliest.
Though the American Red Cross was called in to assist the households displaced in Sundays’ fire, representatives weren’t expected to arrive in Milo until today.
As a temporary measure, the Red Cross was paying to have the Robshaws and other affected families housed in rental cabins at Country Cabin Resort, operated by the owners of the C.C. Polaris snowmobile and ATV dealership.
As for the Robshaws, Brownville Realtor Dolly Perkins said she has found a home the family can stay in.
“It’s perfect for them — it’s about three blocks [from the home they just lost],” she said. Perkins said the house had been listed for some time but hadn’t moved. She now thinks that was for a reason.
“There’s no such thing as coincidences,” said Perkins, whose husband, Chad, is a police officer and firefighter in nearby Brownville.
Perkins at one time owned and lived in the Robshaws’ building.
Perkins is among the local people helping to gather donations for the affected households, especially the Robshaw family.
“Not to play favorites, but they need help,” she said, adding, “They aren’t asking — the town is asking. Right now Mainers need to focus on Mainers.”
Perkins said the Robshaws will need to replace all of the contents of their home, from furniture and kitchen gear to bedding and clothing.
They also will need some money until they can get back on their feet, she said.
Donations for the fire victims are being accepted at the town office in Milo, which can be reached at 943-2202.