BAR HARBOR, Maine — The cause of a fire that destroyed a Cottage Street restaurant Tuesday night remains under investigation, according to the local fire chief.
Matthew Bartlett, chief of the Bar Harbor Fire Department, said Wednesday morning that investigators with the state fire marshal’s office were examining the damaged Portside Grill, which had a partially collapsed roof, to try to determine the cause. He said he did not know when or if they would be able to determine how the fire started.
Bartlett said Tuesday night that the fire was reported a few minutes after 6 p.m. in the rear portion of the second floor of the building, above the restaurant kitchen. The restaurant and two adjacent buildings were fully insured, he said.
The fire resulted in relatively little damage to abutting buildings, according to the owners of those properties.
Sonja Hubbard, who with her husband co-owns the Rite Aid building on the east side of the burned building, said Wednesday that there was some water infiltration into her building. She said seven apartments above Rite-Aid had to be evacuated Tuesday night but that the tenants would be allowed back in on Thursday. All eight of her tenants have been given rooms at the Acadia Inn until then, she said. The pharmacy was open for business as usual on Wednesday morning.
Hubbard said there was a fire in the Rite-Aid building in October 2006, which resulted in the building being extensively renovated. She said she is glad Tuesday’s fire turned out to have much less of an impact than the fire eight years ago.
“We’re really lucky, I think,” Hubbard said.
Heather Sorokin and Basil Eleftheriou, owners of the Thirsty Whale tavern immediately west of Portside Grill, gave credit to the fire department for preventing the flames from spreading to their building, which they completely rebuilt in 2008. Water that had been sprayed from fire trucks funneled into the alley between the two restaurants and then came in through a side door, covering the Thirsty Whale’s hardwood floor, but Whale staff was able to mop it up after the fire next door was extinguished late Tuesday night.
The floors did not buckle, but there is cleanup to do and, because power was cut to the building overnight, all the food at the Thirsty Whale has to be thrown out, Eleftheriou said. He said their insurance company was going to cover the cleanup costs and replace their inventory and that they should reopen in a couple of days.
Attempts Wednesday to contact Vicki Hall, owner of the Portside Grill business and building, were unsuccessful.
Several surrounding property owners said Wednesday that arrangements have been made to demolish the Portside Grill building on Thursday. Bartlett said he had heard the same thing but that any plans to do so would be up to the property owner and the building’s insurer.
Local business owners noted that employees of the Portside Grill should not have great difficulty finding other jobs. Many college students who get summer jobs in Bar Harbor leave by Labor Day to go back to school, leaving many business owners scrambling to fill positions for the fall tourist season, which extends all the way through October.
An online fundraiser for the Portside Grill employees has been started at gofundme.com. As of about 3 p.m. Wednesday, the effort had raised a little more than $1,600 total, according to the website.
The Red Cross also is assisting, providing food, clothing and shelter to more than a dozen people displaced by the fire, a Red Cross official indicated Wednesday.
Bartlett said there were no life safety issues in the building that he was aware of. He said his department does not have the resources to conduct annual life safety inspections of every building in Bar Harbor and he is not sure when the most recent inspection of the Portside Grill building was done.
The fire chief said the Portside Grill building did not have a sprinkler system and due to its age was not required to have one. According to the town’s online assessing database, the restaurant building originally was constructed in 1920. Bartlett said it had been renovated extensively over the years.
Dozens of firefighters from eight towns responded Tuesday night to fight the fire, including Cranberry Isles, Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, Tremont and Trenton, Bartlett said. Ambulance crews from Bar Harbor, Northeast Harbor and from Southwest Harbor/Tremont also assisted at the scene.
Damage from Tuesday’s fire could have been far more severe, given the close proximity of the Portside Grill to the adjacent buildings and the dense development in downtown Bar Harbor. Another fire on Mount Desert Island, in July 2008 in downtown Northeast Harbor, destroyed three buildings and displaced nearly two dozen people at the height of the island’s tourist season.
Bartlett said that there have been worse fires in Bar Harbor than the one Tuesday night, not including the great fire of 1947 that destroyed much of the downtown village and thousands of acres of surrounding forests and fields, much of which was in Acadia National Park.
A fire in 1989, before Bartlett became a firefighter, destroyed a mouse reproduction building at The Jackson Laboratory and killed 400,000 mice, lab officials have said.
Another fire in March 1994, after Bartlett joined the department, destroyed the Bluenose Inn, located on Route 3 just north of the downtown village. The chief said the inn, which has since been rebuilt, had about 10 times the habitable space of the Portside Grill.
“That was a much bigger fire,” he said.