LEWISTON, Maine — It wasn’t just one shock to the downtown — it was three.
Three fires downtown over the course of a week between April and May not only destroyed 10 large tenement buildings, putting dozens of families out in the street, it forced the city to double down on efforts to clean up the quarter-mile area around the city’s center.
“You can see the difference now,” said Norm Beauparlant, the city’s director of budget and purchasing. “And not only demolitions, but our Public Works people worked with the sheriff and got some crews over here, actually cleaning up around and even in some buildings. And that part has had a positive impact.”
The April 29 fire started in the three-story 105 Blake St., just before 4:30 p.m. Within minutes, it had spread to nearby 172 Bates St. By 5 p.m., the roof at 82 Pine St. was ablaze.
All of the neighboring tenements were evacuated, and residents gathered to watch Lewiston fire crews and teams from eight other fire agencies battle the blaze until late that night. The next morning, all three buildings were declared lost. In all, 75 residents were left homeless.
It was followed four days later by a fire that started in a garage at 149 Bartlett St., just after 10 p.m. and quickly spread to buildings at 110, 114 and 116 Pierce St. Again, fire crews from 10 other central Maine fire agencies joined Lewiston crews to battle the flames. Hundreds of residents were rousted from their beds.
Three days later, three more buildings went up — at 114 and 118 Bartlett St. and 91 Horton St. The three buildings shared a courtyard. Fire crews arrived at about 2:45 a.m. to find the backs of all three buildings burning.
Crews had those fires under control by 7 a.m., but it changed the mood of the area. Many of the remaining residents purchased renters’ insurance in response. Others moved away.
While The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and other charities worked to help the victims ousted by the fire, the city began efforts to make sure it didn’t happen again. Crews began inspecting every vacant, mostly vacant or otherwise abandoned downtown building, marking those that were beyond repair with red and white Xs.
The city opened the landfill to downtown residents for much of the summer, hoping they would clean up those buildings and take flammable trash and old furniture that had littered the downtown to the dump. They did, taking 172 tons to the dump between May 9 and June 7.
The city had started its demolition program in 2011, setting aside money each year to buy failing and vacant properties and tear them down. The justification was as much an economic issue as a safety issue early on, but that changed after the fires.
Buildings burned by the fires went down, but so did some neighboring tenements. In all, the city has demolished 35 buildings — the 10 destroyed in the fire and other abandoned buildings that could have been fire dangers. Beauparlant expects at least six more will be torn down next spring.
But, he said, the demolition project has had another side benefit. Owners and investors have stepped forward, and seven of the buildings on the city’s list of worst properties are being renovated.
“This what we hoped would happen before the fires,” he said. “It’s a changing dynamic downtown, and with the worst ones going away or gone, the downtown may be coming back. I attribute that to the city removing the real bad stuff and encouraging people to do something with their properties.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services