GARDINER — Building codes didn’t give Clare Marron a choice: She had to put a sprinkler system in her downtown building, and now she’s especially glad she did.

That’s after a fire ripped through 235 Water St. on July 16 and swept across three connected buildings, displacing 12 tenants in a setback to Gardiner downtown revitalization efforts. Fire Chief Al Nelson said almost all of the damage could have been prevented with a sprinkler system, which the building didn’t need to meet codes.

The building was just down the street from Monkitree, the art gallery and shop that Marron and her partner own and live above. After they moved into the building in 2009, they put in a sprinkler system that now covers the basement, first and second floors. They plan to expand it to the now-gutted third and fourth floors that they hope to eventually live in.

That wasn’t cheap. Marron said they’ve spent $18,000 so far. She said she understands why the cost “seems outrageous” to many building owners who aren’t forced to do it.

“But it could save lives, not to mention property,” she said, “and when you’re looking at a historic downtown like this, where the buildings are so close together, the danger is real.”

After a 2013 fire, Waterville reviewed sprinkler systems and code compliance in downtown buildings, and public officials say conversations about similar moves are likely in Gardiner and Hallowell. That’s welcomed by Richard McCarthy, Maine’s assistant fire marshal, who pitches the systems as an economic development tool for businesses and communities, especially downtowns.

“You look at downtown Gardiner now. They’ve lost rental income from the tenants, the businesses,” he said. “Those are things that could have been saved.”

The fire marshal’s office is still trying to determine a cause of the blaze. An investigator said last week he still needed to talk to some of the tenants as part of his investigation.

Sprinklers are governed by state laws, policies and the Maine Life Safety Standard, which has required sprinklers in most new apartment buildings since 1991. In many cases, older buildings may not need them. However, cities and towns can have higher standards and McCarthy said at least six, including Portland and South Portland, have established them.

Some U.S. cities, including Lawrence, Kansas, and Mesa, Arizona, have established programs to incentivize sprinklers in downtowns, but McCarthy said there’s no sprinkler-specific program at the state or local levels in Maine. The fire marshal’s office issues permits for sprinklers and has issued 295 this year, but there’s no database of sprinklered buildings, and at the local level, that information typically exists in individual building files.

McCarthy likened sprinklers to “having a firefighter in your building 24-7,” but some see them as an obstacle. The Waterville building at 18 Main St. that burned in 2013 had a sprinkler system, but it was turned off years before by building owner John Weeks in an agreement with the city because of the cost of keeping the water connection, according to a report from Fire Chief David LaFountain.

However, the report said that was conditional. If Weeks rented the apartments, he was supposed to turn them back on. He didn’t, and a fire that started on a deck ripped through the building, including an occupied unit. Nobody was hurt. In an interview, Weeks said he doesn’t regret the decision to shut the system off. He collected insurance money after the fire, and he said that water damage from the sprinklers likely would have destroyed the building anyway.

“It really didn’t impact me, and if the sprinkler was on, it would have impacted me just the same,” Weeks said.

Waterville city councilors then formed a committee to review downtown fire protection. Of 20 buildings inspected, 17 met sprinkler codes, but some were damaged or compromised. There were other concerns, including breeched fire walls. Lindsey Burrill, president of the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association in Waterville, praised LaFountain’s actions on fire protection.

However, she said installing sprinkler systems is “a delicate balance” for landlords. She owns a building at 193-195 Main St., with a commercial unit and eight apartments above it, but they don’t have to be sprinklered. She hasn’t done it because of cost, but she said the building is often inspected and within code.

“I like to think that my building’s looking pretty good with all the eyes looking at it,” Burrill said.

Downtown landlords may see extra eyes after the Gardiner fire. Hallowell Mayor Mark Walker has invited Maine Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas and Fire Chief Mike Grant to an August city council meeting with a goal of looking to “see if we’re doing everything we should be doing.”

The city is no stranger to downtown fires. The popular Slates Restaurant on Water Street was destroyed in a 2007 blaze, but it was rebuilt — with a sprinkler system, McCarthy said.

Gardiner Mayor Thomas Harnett said he “would not be surprised if this doesn’t get brought up,” and it would be “foolish not to raise the issue.”

“I’ll be honest with you. This wasn’t on my radar before this,” he said. “It takes a catastrophe, sometimes, to think about things like this, and that’s unfortunate.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

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Twitter: @mikeshepherdme