LEWISTON — Lewiston city officials are checking vacant properties and stepping up police patrols to try to reduce the chance of another fire in a downtown neighborhood where three major fires have gutted nine buildings and left nearly 200 people homeless within the past week.

A fire ripped through two vacant, four-story apartment buildings on Bartlett Street early Monday morning, setting already shaky residents on edge in the densely populated neighborhood now dotted with burnt buildings.

Police allege a 12-year-old boy set a fire on April 29 in a recently condemned nine-unit complex at 105-111 Blake St. that destroyed three buildings. Seventy-five people were displaced. On Friday, a second fire, alleged to have been set by another 12-year-old boy, destroyed more apartments on Bartlett Street. More than 100 more people were left homeless by that fire.

Investigators have not determined the cause of the most recent fire, said Fire Chief Paul LeClair. No one was seriously injured. It took firefighters nearly four hours to bring the flames under control, he said.

Police Chief Michael Bussiere said police have questioned witnesses but have not yet determined how it was set. Lewiston police are being assisted by the State Fire Marshal’s Office and investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Clearly the fact we’ve had three major fires downtown in a week is a major concern for us,” Bussiere said.


Bussiere said his department has stepped up patrols in the neighborhood and is taking other measures to prevent future fires, but he declined to elaborate.

“The hammer is coming down,” Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said Monday afternoon at a news conference. “We’re not going to put up with this anymore.”

In response to the fires, the city has established a public priority response area, a roughly 35-block area in the neighborhood around the fire sites.

Vacant properties in the area will be rechecked and secured by the city staff, officials said. Representatives of federal and nonprofit aid agencies have met to coordinate services, and the city will issue 30-day city dump passes to allow people to dispose of bulky or unwieldy waste.

The city also will host a housing fair on Wednesday to help resettle the scores of residents displaced, and it will work with nonprofits to collect household items and infant supplies for donation, including 15 cribs. Holly Stover, acting director of multicultural affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services, said 27 families have been displaced by the fires, including 23 large refugee families.

Gov. Paul LePage, who grew up in Lewiston, will visit the city Tuesday to meet with Macdonald and view the fire damage. State lawmakers from Lewiston also have asked the governor to declare an emergency and release funds from the governor’s emergency fund to help Lewiston residents who have lost their homes in the fires.


Phil Nadeau, the deputy city administer, said city officials are working to determine the costs of responding to the three fires.

Monday’s fire was spotted by a police sergeant who was on patrol in the neighborhood, Bussiere said. First responders were able to evacuate residents in nearby buildings quickly. During the evacuations, an officer was injured slightly while kicking in a door but is not expected to miss work.

When fire companies arrived, heavy fire was showing from the rear of both 114 and 118 Bartlett St., LeClair said. He said the buildings are a total loss and will be demolished.

Gil Arsenault, director of planning and code enforcement for the city, said the buildings are owned by LJM LLC, a company operated by a Lewiston landlord who has significant holdings.

“He was mothballing them,” Arsenault said of the unoccupied structures.

Lewiston fire investigator Paul Ouellette said police have questioned two people in connection with the fire.


Shannon McWilliams, who lives nearby on Pierce Street, said she watched as police took a man, identified as Brian Morin Sr., into custody after the blaze began.

Morin, 29, who was released from police custody later Monday morning, said he was returning to an apartment where he was staying with friends near the site of the fire about 3 a.m. Monday, around the time the fire began.

He said he went outside and tried rousing people in a neighboring building, but couldn’t wake anyone. Soon after, police arrived and he was taken into custody for questioning. He was released about seven hours later.

“(The police) asked why I did it, and what I used to set it,” said Morin, who was convicted in 2001 of unlawful sexual conduct.

He said he will undergo a police polygraph test on Tuesday, which he believes will show his innocence.

“I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do,” he said. Officials would not say whether Morin had been ruled out as a possible suspect, nor whether anyone else had been identified.


Nadeau, the deputy city administrator, praised the community response to the fire and encouraged people to continue to pass tips along to police.

“The message needs to be clear. … We are exhausting every opportunity and every resource to make sure people feel safe,” he said. “We hope people who live in this city can go to bed tonight feeling safe.”

People who live in the neighborhood say they don’t feel safe.

Jenn Ahlberg, who watched from a stoop Monday morning as firefighters mopped up on Bartlett Street, said she was shocked by the timing of the fires.

“It makes me wonder which building is going to be next,” Ahlberg said. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my city.”

Wesley Stover rushed to the fire scene to watch after he got a call from a friend. He said he had lived in the building as a child.

Stover and his wife, Kelly, said their sons, ages 4 and 5, are scared of all the fires.

“I want to get out of this town. This is getting ridiculous. I’m ready to pack my bags and go,” Stover said. “That’s what everyone is wondering: Are we next?”

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