FORT KENT, Maine — The owners of a downtown auto dealership destroyed by fire on Wednesday were already back in business Thursday morning, operating out of a temporary new home at the Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge in Fort Kent.
The dealerships inventory of nearly 200 new Chevrolets, GMCs and Buicks were parked in the lot outside the lodge, as owners Carl and Patricia Theriault were busy assessing the damage and doing what they could to keep the business running.
When the fire broke out just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, close to 150 community members rallied to help Valley Auto employees move cars, computers, files, tools and other items out of harm’s way.
Thanks to those efforts, Carl Theriault said Thursday, the company was able to resume operations — albeit limited — that morning.
“This town just blows me away,” Theriault said. “I mean, I was seeing people in business suits and all of our neighbors rushing into that burning building to help save what they could.”
The state fire marshal said Thursday that the damage was too extensive to determine the origin, but he did not consider it suspicious.
“We know the fire started in the front half of the building in the attic,” Tim Lowell, investigator with the fire marshal’s office, said from the lot where Valley Auto stood just 24 hours before. “We can’t rule out electrical as the cause, but we really can’t determine the exact cause due to all the damage.”
The fire also melted through several utility lines, cutting electrical power to much of Fort Kent in addition to telephone and Internet access. Crews were working to restore that access Thursday morning.
Among those without communication lines is the Fort Kent Police Department, which has temporarily relocated to the former Fairpoint Communications building near the intersection of West Main and Pleasant Street. The department’s phone number 834-5678 remains operational.
At the ski lodge on Thursday morning, Carl Theriault praised the efforts of all who helped to salvage cars, equipment and documents from the burning structure.
“I’m telling people we had 150 employees yesterday, not 20,” he said. “It was unbelievable how fast they all arrived to help, and I bet thanks to them we saved 80 percent of our paperwork and valuable documents.”
Theriault said he met with his 20 regular employees early Thursday morning at the lodge.
“They all kind of came in with their chins down,” he said. “But I told them we have a plan in place for what we need to do next.”
The first part of that plan was well in hand by midmorning Thursday as office operations were resuming in rooms normally used for ski storage and related activities at the lodge.
Technicians were working to establish Internet and phone service for Valley Auto at the lodge, where office employees were already working on this week’s payroll.
“Everybody is fanning out to do what needs done,” Theriault said.
Calls are being made to secure garage space for scheduled warrantee and maintenance work on vehicles, and Theriault is looking at his options for recovering waste oil still in holding tanks on the property.
“The people who work for Valley Auto will continue to draw a paycheck,” Theriault said. “We have insurance that can keep us going, but I want us to be back in business working and bringing money in.”
Calls have already come in from at least 15 garage owners offering temporary space, and Theriault is looking ahead to rebuild but isn’t sure exactly where.
“I want to rebuild in Fort Kent,” he said. “But our space here was always very tight, so I’m not sure what is going to happen.”
What may happen, he said, is a smaller, but more efficient building than the 1923 structure that once housed Etscovitz Motors and, before that a business catering to horse, not vehicle, traffic.
Firefighters from surrounding communities and both sides of the border fought the blaze but were unable to save the structure, which was fully involved by the time the first crews arrived just after 9 a.m. Wednesday.
By 10:45 a.m., an excavator had been called in to push down what was left of the still-burning building. Crews remained on the scene until 8 p.m. and were back Thursday morning hosing down hotspots.
“We had tremendous help from our mutual aid,” Edward Endee, Fort Kent’s fire chief said Thursday. “We were able to save the neighboring building and keep it contained.”
The closest building, owned by Northern Maine Medical Center, suffered some minor water and heat damage.
Theriault stressed that, “All we lost was metal and wood. No one was hurt, and that is what really matters.”
He added that all the help and support, coupled with the positive responses he’s getting from his insurance company and General Motors, are going a long way in helping to get things back to normal.
“Right now, we want to take care of our employees first and our customers second,” Theriault said. “Yesterday, I said we’d take it day by day. Well, today is day two.”