Fire in Machias forces Route 1 closure

Posted May 21, 2009, at 9:41 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Six businesses were evacuated from the Whole Life building Thursday afternoon when a smoky fire closed down Route 1 for several hours. Damage to the building was minor.

The fire began on the south side of the four-story building, a bright turquoise landmark in the center of downtown owned by Patty and Mike Sansing, who operate the Whole Life Natural Market.

The fire began as a chain reaction: A cigarette was discarded in a butt container outside the door of H&R Block. It caught the container on fire, which caught a small shrub on fire, which extended to the side of the building and into an overhang.

Machias Fire Chief Joe Dunston said when he first arrived and saw the smoke seeping from the exterior walls he thought the building would be destroyed. “What saved us was a fast attack,” he said.

Machias has a firefighter on call at the station and getting that first truck to the scene within minutes was key to saving the building, Dunston said. “We were very lucky,” he said.

Within minutes of the bush catching fire, offices adjacent to the fire and businesses above it began filling with smoke. Building owner Patty Sansing ran a garden hose out a second-story window and was able to put out the burning bush, but it took firefighters several hours to keep the fire from spreading.

The fire was reported about 2:45 p.m. A group of women who were admiring a new puppy across the street from the building said it was a sudden cloud of black smoke that alerted them. “You couldn’t even see the front of the building,” one said.

Because there are storefronts on three sides of the building — it faces Water Street, Route 1 and Colonial Way — firefighters were working in several areas.

Dunston said the fire damaged the floor and walls at the rear of the Whole Life Natural Market and portions of both had to be removed to ensure the fire was out.

Firefighters from Machias, East Machias, Marshfield and Jonesboro arrived quickly, as did the Washington County Fire Service Strike Team. Machias police and Washington County deputies closed Route 1 and diverted travelers through East Machias, the next closest crossing over the Machias River. Bangor Hydro cut power to both sides of the building as employees of the six businesses gathered outside.

One Machias firefighter, Clyde Bernhardt, collapsed at the scene from an apparent medical condition and was taken by ambulance to Down East Community Hospital. Later in the evening, Dunston said Bernhardt was in stable condition.

“This was really stressful,” Dunston said. “Not only did we have the possibility of a huge fire but we had a man go down. Very stressful.”

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