AUGUSTA — Investigators say the fire that destroyed an Augusta apartment house Monday was caused by a 5-year-old playing with either matches or a lighter.

The announcement came shortly before 1 p.m., only 22 hours after the fire was reported at 94 Mount Vernon Ave.

Three families are homeless in the wake of that fire, which shut down traffic on the busy street during afternoon commuting hours. Neighbors and passers-by watched as more than two dozen firefighters worked to knock down the intense fire.

In a news release, Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said the fire started in the first-floor apartment and quickly spread throughout the house.

McCausland said no one was injured.

Augusta Deputy Fire Chief Dave Groder said it’s not clear whether a match or a lighter was used.

On Tuesday, the burned building stood empty on the street, with bits and pieces of broken glass and the tenants’ belongings on the ground, including a bright red fire extinguisher that apparently never was used. Plywood covered the front entrances and utility wires hung slack from the building’s north side. On the south side, three white propane tanks, one for each unit, stood disconnected and slightly askew.

A woman stopped by to take a look around. She said she had lived in the building and had lost a dog and four cats, but otherwise she declined to be interviewed.

The building won’t be standing for much longer. Steps are under way to demolish the structure because it is next to the road.

Rob Overton, code enforcement officer for the city of Augusta, said he had advised the building’s owner on Monday to keep the building secured and to have it demolished as soon as possible, once the building has been cleared for that by the Office of State Fire Marshal.

“I don’t believe we’ll require a permit,” Overton said. “It’s a safety issue. We’ll waive the fee to expedite the process.”

Augusta property records show the building is owned by Tomberlin Construction.

George Tomberlin said demolition could take place as soon as Wednesday, but certainly by the end of the week. The demolition contractor and the insurance adjuster still have work they need to do on site.

“This is the fourth fire I’ve had in 50 years,” Tomberlin said. Three fires, including one last year, were barn fires.

Tomberlin said he’s owned the property for nearly seven years, and the inside had been refurbished. He said also owns the adjacent vacant lot to the north on Mount Vernon Avenue.

He said he’s not planning to rebuild. When a nearby four-decker house that’s on the market sells, Tomberlin said, he hopes the new owner would buy his lots.

“I’m old enough to go forward,” he said. “I am not looking back. It’s like a musical instrument. Once you blow a note, you can’t suck it back.”

The child who set the fire wanted a small fire on his blanket, he said, adding, “We need to teach young people not to play with matches.”

At midday Tuesday, William Hippler and Judith Catlin, also known as Judith Armstrong, had spent an uneasy night in an Augusta motel.

Hippler said he was waiting to hear from his doctor’s office about replacement prescriptions before he could do anything else. Catlin, who is terminally ill, has cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and requires oxygen. She said her tank was running low.

Sometime overnight, Hippler had managed to secure a red hooded sweatshirt to wear over his T-shirt and jeans. He and Catlin fled their home with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Their belongings, in two reusable shopping bags, include the laptop computer Catlin received as a birthday present, in addition to four parakeets in a cage that were rescued by the Fire Department from their basement apartment.

They said they had enough money to stay a second night in the motel, but they are not sure what will happen after that. All of their personal papers and identification were left behind.

Ann Kim, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said those affected by the fire would be offered financial assistance that they will be able to use at their own discretion, and a Red Cross caseworker will follow up to see what the displaced families need.

Hippler said he heard a bang before the woman who lived on the first floor came around the side of the building looking for a fire extinguisher. By the time they were able to make their way to the front of the building, they couldn’t get close to the apartment because of the fire’s intensity, and the kitchen windows had been blown out.

Catlin said she was glad Hippler was home Monday afternoon. She had been planning to take a nap and Hippler had been planning on doing errands.

That’s when Hippler said he went back to Catlin. “I said, ‘Woman! Let’s go!’ She knows when I say that, I ain’t playing games.”

Because he had been in a building fire once before, Hippler said he knew what could happen.

Hippler said a passer-by, who has been identified as Jeffrey Benner, a captain with the call division of the Rockland Fire Department, disconnected the lines to propane tanks and eventually helped Catlin, who uses a sit-down walker, across Mount Vernon Avenue and away from the fire.

Now, he said, they will start over again in Augusta.

“The firefighters there, everyone who was there deserves a pair of wings,” Hippler said, including Benner. “They did a great job.”

Fire crews from Augusta, Winthrop, Chelsea, Togus and Gardiner responded to the fire on Mount Vernon Avenue, which is between Sand Hill and Bond Brook, and worked for more than hour to bring the fire under control. Neighbors and passers-by thronged the streets, watching the fire take the tan clapboard home with the metal roof.

The National Fire Protection Association, which keeps statistics on fires in the United States, said from 2007 to 2011, fires started by play accounted for nearly 50,000 fires. Of those, 11,100 were structure fires, and 43 percent were started by children 6 years old or younger.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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