WATERVILLE — State fire officials have closed their investigation into a fire that heavily damaged a downtown building a week ago.
However, they continue to look at whether any building or life safety codes were violated.
The sprinkler system was not on in the building at the time of the late afternoon fire May 3.
“The fire investigation is concluded,” Sgt. Tim York, of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said Friday. “As far as the sprinkler system is concerned, I’d say we’re still looking into it.”
The cause of the fire at 18 Main St. is listed by the Fire Marshal’s Office as “undetermined.”
“We are confident the fire started on the exterior third-floor deck,” York said. “I can’t tell you what, exactly, caused the fire.”
He said the deck no longer exists.
The deck where the fire started was outside an occupied apartment. A tenant lived in a fourth-floor apartment, and the second floor was vacant. The tattoo shop INK-4-LIFE was on the first floor, along with a wireless phone business.
Building owner John Weeks did not return a phone call Friday. State and local fire officials said they do not know whether his insurance company has looked at the building to determine whether it can be repaired.
Fire safety concerns
Waterville Fire Chief David LaFountain said damage to the building would have been much less if the sprinkler system had been functioning.
“Fortunately, no one got hurt; but it makes me uncomfortable, especially on Main Street, that people are turning sprinklers off.”
LaFountain said Weeks had turned the sprinkler system off off several years ago when the apartments were vacant, claiming financial hardship. He said fire officials had reached an agreement with him providing that when people started living there, the sprinkler system would be turned back on.
Later, he urged Weeks to turn the sprinkler system on, as people had moved into the apartments on the upper floors of the four-story building. The Fire Department sent Weeks a letter, telling him to turn the system on, according to LaFountain.
York, of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said Friday he has not seen that letter but is aware it exists.
“I do not believe that violating that letter necessarily is a violation of a rule or statute at this point in time,” York said. “It was an agreement, but I’m not sure there’s any way to attach a violation to that agreement.”
Jeff LaCasse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District, said Friday that the cost to building owners for hooking up a sprinkler system for private fire service depends on the size of the line going into a building.
The line going into 18 Main St. is a 6-inch line, and the cost to connect to the sprinkler system was $987 per year before 2005, when the sprinkler system was shut off, LaCasse said. The rates increased April 1, so the cost to hook up to that building now would be $1,036, he said.
LaCasse emphasized that when someone asks for a line to be turned off, the Water District requires notification from the building owner’s insurance company, as well as a note from the local fire department, saying it is aware the service is off.
“Just about all of them (downtown buildings) have sprinkler systems; not all are active,” he said.
LaFountain said at a recent City Council meeting that four are inactive.
When are sprinklers required?
Rich McCarthy, assistant state fire marshal, said building owners are responsible for making sure their buildings are up to code and following fire and life safety codes.
Before they buy a building, they should check with fire officials to determine whether a sprinkler system is required.
“The onus does fall upon the owner,” McCarthy said.
The rules are anything but cut and dried, however. Whether someone must have a sprinkler system depends on who or what will be in the building.
“A question I get thousands of times is, ‘I’m building a 5,000-square-foot steel building. Do I need a sprinkler system?'” McCarthy said. “The answer is, I don’t know. It depends. If the building is a bar — yes. If it’s storage building for metal fence posts? Probably not.”
The National Fire Protection Association sets life safety codes, which determine whether a building needs a sprinkler system. The association also sets fire prevention codes. In addition, the state sets building codes, according to York.
Which codes apply to which buildings and situations vary, as every situation is unique, he said.
Are all buildings required to have smoke detectors, for instance?
“Typically, if people are sleeping in a building, smoke detectors are required; but that’s a general statement,” York said.
Codes are changing as well. Years ago, masonry walls were built between sections of buildings to stop fire from spreading; but as time goes on, people break through walls and make other changes, according to McCarthy.
York said he does not know whether the 18 Main St. building violated any codes.
“I’m not sure there will ever be a violation or summons issued, but I can’t tell you right now that that won’t happen,” he said.
LaFountain is concerned about the dangers of downtown buildings not using sprinkler systems.
“When fire in a building gets going and you don’t get a jump on it, you could end up losing a whole block,” he said.
Waterville was lucky that fire Capt. Mike Michaud called in other fire departments to help suppress the 18 Main St. fire, that three ladder trucks were used, and that firefighters contained the fire, he said.
LaFountain is heading a special committee launched by city councilors to look at sprinkler systems downtown, as well as their inspection records and related issues. He said the committee will ask McCarthy to attend a meeting to explain who has jurisdiction in specific cases, and if someone is charged in a case, who has the authority to take that person to court.
Meanwhile, INK-4-LIFE owners Mona Juliano and her husband, Bill, have moved their tattoo business across Main Street to the former Levine’s clothing store, where building owner Michael Sorrachi has been providing materials and helping them prepare the space for a June 1 opening. Tattoo artists also are helping, she said.
The Julianos had no insurance and lost about $20,000 worth of items in the fire, including several procedure chairs and a massage table, Mona Juliano said.
The couple have three children. She said they have been struggling to put food on the table since the fire, but they are not giving up.
“I want to get back to making a living,” she said. “I just want to see all of us not struggling so much.”
Amy Calder — 861-9247