AUGUSTA — An early morning fire at a State Street apartment building that displaced five residents was caused by a space heater, authorities said.

The fire Tuesday morning came just days after another nearby apartment fire left 27 people homeless. That fire, on Friday on Northern Avenue, has families reeling as they seek new housing.

Tuesday morning, part of State Street between Bond and Bridge streets was closed for several hours as firefighters battled the blaze, which destroyed the four-unit apartment building at 20 State St.

No injuries were reported, according to Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette, who said the fire across from Laurel Street was reported around 6 a.m.

“But now five more families need housing,” he said. “All five tenants are joining the 27 people from the other fire at the Super 8. The Red Cross is there.”

Sgt. Kenneth Grimes, of the state fire marshal’s office, said a space heater too close to combustible items in the rear bedroom of a first-floor apartment has been determined to be the cause of the fire.

Grimes said the cause was accidental, and no charges have been filed.

Sarah Holland, tenant of a basement apartment in the building for the last two-and-a-half years, was awakened by a fellow tenant pounding on her door, telling her they needed to get out.

“That’s how I was woken up today,” she said, while sitting in a school bus Audette said was brought to the scene to provide a warm place for tenants. “I put my cats in carriers, because they’re important, grabbed a bag of stuff (and her three cats) and got out.”

She said she left her purse, car keys and glasses behind in the apartment, but a firefighter retrieved those items for her. She does not have renters’ insurance. She speculated that her apartment probably wasn’t burned, as the flames seemed contained to the upper floors of the building, but her things probably were damaged by water from firefighting efforts. She said she has friends in the area, and her mother was going to come up from Massachusetts, so she was confident she would be able to find another place to stay.

“The most important thing is everybody got out safe,” Holland said. “My things … that’s just materialistic stuff. It doesn’t matter.”

The addition of the five State Street tenants to the ranks of the 27 already burned out of the Northern Avenue building has put a strain on local housing resources.

Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, said there are immediate vacancies available locally to accommodate the families burned out by the fires.

She said one issue some renters in the burned-out buildings are having is they are looking for one-bedroom apartments, while a lot of the vacant units contain two bedrooms.

She said some landlords have been willing to make concessions to help the fire victims, including some offering two-bedroom units at a one-bedroom rate, which, she said, “is really wonderful.”

Bartlett said officials involved in helping people recover from the Northern Avenue fire already were “mobilized,” which should help make it easier for people burned out in the State Street fire to get services and support quickly.

The two-and-a-half story apartment building is owned by John Pedersen, of Gardiner, according to city tax records.

Holland said Pedersen always has been responsive to fixing any problems at the building as soon as tenants reported them. She said her unit had working smoke detectors.

Audette said the fire was difficult to fight, in large part because the building, like many in Augusta, is built on a steep embankment. It has utility wires hanging in front of it, was easily accessible only from one side, and wind of up to 20 mph spread the flames throughout the building, he said. Audette said some firefighters fought the blaze from a driveway off Boothby Street, which is at the bottom of the embankment.

Ice formed rapidly on the ground, making the hilly terrain around the structure that much more slippery.

At one point, Audette said, conditions were so bad that firefighters were ordered out of the building before they regrouped and went back inside to finish extinguishing the blaze.

“The guys are cold. They’ve been outside doing their jobs,” Audette said of firefighters. “So we’ve been rotating them out. They did an amazing job.”

Firefighters from Togus, Gardiner, Winthrop, Chelsea and Vassalboro assisted Augusta with the fire.

Eric Larsen, one of three people living in a street-level apartment in the building, said he and fellow tenant Mike Russell smelled smoke so they knocked down the door to a storage room where the smoke seemed to be coming from. They saw a wall of the storage room was on fire and then left the apartment.

Larsen said their cat also got out of the burning building safely.

Larsen, who is being put up temporarily in a room at the Super 8 motel, where other fire victims are also staying, said he wasn’t too worried about finding another place to stay.

Linda Baker, who lives across the street from the burned building, said she heard firetrucks coming and then watched as they stopped right in front of the building where her apartment is. She said she looked out and saw that the front door of 20 State St. was engulfed in flames. She said she gave one tenant a coat and offered to have others come into her apartment to stay warm. However, her apartment building’s electricity was shut off, as it was in other buildings in that part of the city as well, because of the fire.

On the opposite side of State Street, on the upper corner of Laurel Street, another apartment building destroyed by fire in August had been knocked down only recently and removed. That fire destroyed 23 State St.

Audette said there have been five fires in that neighborhood over the last three years.

“It’s the age of the structures. Most of them are over 100 years old,” Audette said, explaining why the neighborhood has had so many fires in recent years. “And they have a lot of people in them. That just increases the chance of a human element being a factor” in causing a fire.

City records indicate the building and 0.11-acre property is assessed, for tax purposes, at $95,600, and was built in 1884.

Ward 3 City Councilor Patrick Paradis, who grew up nearby on Laurel Street, said the burned building was owned previously by the late Frank and Lillian Pomerleau. He said Lillian ran a small grocery store on the first floor of the building, and the family lived across the street, where Frank opened a furniture store — a precursor to Frank Pomerleau Inc., which opened in the 1960s and closed in 2003.

Bartlett said she heard at least one of the Northern Avenue tenants has found an apartment he could move into Friday, and another had multiple viable rental options he was choosing from.

Some tenants in the Northern Avenue fire expressed frustration at losing all their personal documents to the fire. Bartlett suggested people who need to replace documents lost to fire start with the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where they can get a replacement license or state identification for $5. She said having that identification will help those seeking to replace other lost documents.

The United Way of Kennebec Valley has set up a fund to help those displaced by the Northern Avenue fire. Audette suggested people who want to help victims of the State Street fire could donate to the same fund.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.