SKOWHEGAN — A Tuesday night fire that destroyed a three-unit apartment building on Main Street, displacing eight people and shutting off power to more than 1,800 Central Maine Power Co. customers, was accidental and started on the third floor of the apartment house, officials said.

Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said Wednesday that a renter on the third floor substituted an extension cord for permanent electrical wiring, overheating the cord and igniting the fire.

Howard said investigators from the Skowhegan Fire Department, the Police Department and the Office of State Fire Marshal made the determination Wednesday afternoon after interviews and a scene examination. The extension cord was substituted improperly as permanent wiring, Howard said. The cord was used to run several appliances or pieces of equipment, he said. No charges will be filed.

“Extension cords are for temporary use,” Howard said. “There was too much draw on that cord and too much draw equals heat.”

The building is owned by Dale Kinney, who lives in Florida during the winter. Fire officials said the building is insured.

Contacted by phone Wednesday in Florida, Kinney said he is saddened by the loss of the historic building but glad that everyone made it out safely. He said the building was equipped with smoke detectors.

“It was my favorite building because it has a lot of history to it, which is a damn shame,” Kinney said. “It was the first tavern in Skowhegan. At one time it was called the (Josiah) Locke Tavern.”

Compounding cleanup efforts Wednesday morning was a burst water main, which workers from Maine Water in Skowhegan were beginning to address.

Steve Cox, director of engineering at Maine Water, which supplies parts of the area, said the main’s failure shut off water to buildings, nine of which are occupied. He said the break came as a result of a change in pressure and direction of the water during firefighting efforts.

The broken water main first was discovered near the house during the fire Tuesday night. Water could be seen flowing down Main Street and pooling on West Front Street, held in by massive snowbanks. Cox said officials are still uncertain where the break is along the 6- or 8-inch pipe.

“Where the water surfaces isn’t always where the break is,” Cox said by phone Wednesday afternoon from Maine Water offices in Saco. “They’ve got a large chunk of pavement open and they’re chasing the direction the water is coming from, but sometimes these things can really deceive you.”

As of Wednesday evening, the water had not been turned back on and Cox said there is no way to estimate when the break might be fixed. It could be a small break, or it could be “a massive blowout” that could take longer to fix.

“We’re assuming that it was probably broken somehow during the firefighting efforts,” Cox said. “We typically can see these during fire issues because there’s a change in pressure and direction flow. It only takes a slight change in that pipe and sometimes it opens it up.”

Kinney, the building owner, said he owns two other apartment buildings, his home and a trailer.

“I’m just glad everybody go out,” he said. “It’s sad to lose a building like that.”

Howard said all of the residents made it out of the burning building without injuries, but most lost all of their belongings.

He said some pets that were in the building survived, but some cats remained unaccounted for Wednesday. The fire started just before 5 p.m. at 11 Main St., where U.S. Route 2 meets U.S. Route 201 at the entrance to downtown.

Flames could be seen coming from second-floor windows at the house, opposite SouthSide Tavern, as firefighters converged on the scene. Flames later burst from windows on the third floor, toward the roof, as aerial-ladder firetrucks from Skowhegan and Fairfield trained powerful streams of water on the flames shooting out of the windows.

The fire resulted in power being cut for about three hours to some 1,855 customers in the Skowhegan, Fairfield and Norridgewock area, according to Central Maine Power Co. Nearby Redington-Fairview Hospital in Skowhegan was put on auxiliary power, officials said.

Power also was knocked out to most of downtown Skowhegan, from the rotary at the former Candlelight Restaurant, where there was a police roadblock, to past the municipal building on Water Street.

At one point during the firefighting Tuesday night, all of the firetrucks from about 10 area towns at the scene sounded their emergency horns to announce the evacuation of the three-story building.

Bart Hughes, owner of SouthSide Tavern across from the fire scene, said he opened for business Wednesday morning but may have to close for the day if there is no water.

“You could see the water boiling out of the ground over there as soon as it broke,” said Hughes, who has owned SouthSide since 1999. “The water didn’t go off until 10:30 or 11, but we were without power at the same time. It came back on at 8.”

Hughes said the biggest problem trying to run a tavern is “you can’t flush any toilets — that’s the biggest concern.”

“With no water, no toilets. I can get enough bottled water to make drinks and we’ve got plenty of ice. It’s a problem of no waste removal. I’ll have to close if we don’t get it back by tonight. We’ve got to flush the toilets.”

Howard, the fire chief, said ordering the shutdown of the electricity to so many people and businesses isn’t done on a whim and isn’t taken lightly.

“We made that call based on the fact that we had two main trunks that converge right there at that building,” he said. “We had to shut it down for the safely of the firefighters and aerial devices, and we tried to get the power back on as quickly as possible. We understand the effect that has on residents. We don’t take that lightly.”

Howard said investigators conducting interviews and digging through the rubble to determined where and how the fire started.

“You have to remember, there’s some science to it,” he said. “We look at fire behavior. We look at building construction. We look at how fire traveled. Conditions change — a broken window, an open door, all these things affect fire behavior and fire travel. There’s really a lot of science behind it, so we have to sit down and put all of that together.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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