FORT KENT, Maine — For the second time this year, a major fire has destroyed a downtown business.
Crews from seven departments responded to the fire at Valley Auto GMC dealership on West Main Street Wednesday around 9 a.m. and found the structure totally involved. By 10:45 a.m., an excavator was tearing down what was left of the burning building.
“We are going to take this one day at a time,” Carl Theriault, Valley Auto owner, said from the scene Wednesday. “We just have to see what happens next.”
Two employees were in the building’s attic when they heard “a crackling noise,” Theriault said. “It just went so fast after that.”
Fort Kent Fire Chief Edward Endee said it was too early to determine a cause, but the state fire marshall was on site.
Theriault has owned the business for 14 years. The structure, which he said was insured, was built in 1920 and formerly housed Escovitch Motors.
Despite the loss of his business, Theriault had a positive outlook.
“I hate to leave a hole here where the building was,” he said. “I want to try to get these people back to work as soon as we can.”
Valley Auto employed about 20 salespeople and mechanics, Theriault said.
“I hate to say it like this, but this could be an opportunity for economic development,” he said, looking to the future of his business. “My glass is definitely half-full on this one, [and] for six months or so, there will be employment for people during the rebuilding.”
As word of the fire spread, nearly 150 people in the community rallied to help employees move inventory and valuables from the building and surrounding parking lot.
“Within a half-hour, we had all 250 vehicles moved away and all the important documents and files out of the building,” Theriault said. “The really important thing was no one got hurt.”
Among those helping was Glenn Labbe, who lives just up the street from the auto dealership.
“Everybody just mobilized to help get things out,” Labbe said. “It was a complete community effort, [and] for about an hour it was pretty frantic as we were dragging out tires and acetylene tanks.”
Business owner Samantha Berry of Custom Cake Cafe and employee Liz Hebert helped move every car for which keys could be found.
“The smoke was so thick at times we had no visibility,” Berry said. “But we just kept moving them as best we could.”
Kim Paradis, owner of the nearby Century Theater was on her way home when she saw the blaze and jumped in to help push cars for which there were no keys.
“If we could get them out of gear, we were pushing them,” she said. “We just kept trying to match keys to vehicles.”
When all else failed, a large truck used a chain to pull vehicles out of the fire’s path.
The community response didn’t surprise to Labbe, who noted Fort Kent’s tradition of pitching in during disaster.
“You know, you usually see people running away from things like fire,” he said. “But the people here kept running inside to do what they could until the firemen told us to get out.”
The fire burned through utility lines next to the building, knocking out power to buildings in the area, including at the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s residence hall.
Firefighters were able to save the Northern Maine Medical Center’s wellness center next door to the dealership, but staff and hospital employees were evacuated and spent about an hour moving fitness and office equipment to a nearby shed.
“This is just a precaution,” Peter Sirois, NMMC chief executive officer, said from the scene. “The wall closest to Valley Auto started to buckle, so we wanted to get out what we could.”
Thick, black smoke was visible from 10 miles away and by 10 a.m. was covering the residential neighborhood just south of the dealership, blocking out the sun and reducing visibility for several yards.
Endee, Fort Kent’s fire chief, said the fire was reported by multiple callers.
“When we arrived, it was completely involved,” he said. “We first did an internal attack but then for the safety of the firefighters, we moved outside for a defensive attack.”
In addition to members of the Fort Kent Fire Department, firefighters from Sinclair, St. Francois, New Brunswick, Frenchville, Madawaska, Eagle Lake and Clair, New Brunswick, responded.