SKOWHEGAN — A fire that heavily damaged a three-story apartment complex on Water Street last week started when strong wind gusts blew off siding from the building that then struck a Central Maine Power Co. distribution line, triggering an unusual chain of electricity surges inside the building.

That’s according to Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard, who said Tuesday that investigators were able to piece together the fire’s cause based on statements from bystanders and witnesses at the scene.

“A piece of siding blew loose from the building and contacted a CMP transmission line, which then energized part of the building, causing some fires to start in the building,” Howard said Tuesday.

Of 11 apartments in the building, five were destroyed and one on the first floor had water damage in the kitchen, Howard said. Five apartments were not damaged, he said.

As firefighters douse flames at left, fire is visible Thursday in a nearby kitchen on the second floor of a large apartment building at 378 Water St. in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

The building, owned by Joe Wyman, had six apartments in the front, facing Water Street, and five on the back, adjacent to Cardinal Avenue.

Thirteen fire departments responded to reports of the April 4 fire, which was made more difficult to fight because of high wind gusts, Howard said.

“It was a tough fire and it was a lot on the guys, especially in those first minutes of the fire,” he said. “There was a lot going on and the guys made the right decisions early on that helped dictate how the fire went. The wind driving that fire caused it to advance very quickly in the structure.”

About 30 minutes into the fire, which was reported around 11 a.m., officials sounded an evacuation alarm to get all firefighters out of the building, Howard said.

“Initially, they extinguished the fire in the third floor and attic space and they became cut off because there were multiple spots where the fire started,” he said. “Another fire advanced toward them and it actually made it to the stairs and cut off their egress.”

Firefighters escaped through windows of the building and officials made sure they were all accounted for, he said. Firefighters worked to knock the fire down from outside the building and then returned inside, according to Howard.

Sixteen people were living in the building, he said. Tenants of the five undamaged apartments had to wait until power and water were returned to the structure before moving back in.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross and town officials were helping to ensure those displaced by the fire had places to stay, according to the chief.

“Some people in the community set up networking to get some donations to start a fund help the people out,” Howard said.

Disconnected wires hang over electric meters Tuesday at the burned apartment building at 378 Water St. in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Ken MacMaster, senior fire investigator for the state fire marhsal’s office, was at the scene April 4 and helped determine the cause of the fire, Howard said. Officials also spoke with CMP.

A firefighter who was bitten by a cat while rescuing it is fine, according to Howard.

The fire scene was dramatic, as tenants were evacuated from the building and congregated in a parking lot off Cardinal Street, some wrapped in blankets and crying. Firefighters rescued cats from the building and one woman fainted in the parking lot as a strong wind whipped sand about. Neighbors came out of homes to watch the goings-on and helped comfort the tenants and place pets in cages and vehicles.

Rachelle Clukey, 28, and her son, Rylan, 7, lost everything in their second-floor apartment, which was destroyed. She said at the scene that before the fire, she had moved boxes from a storage facility into their apartment. They lost four televisions, all the items she had recently purchased to home-school her son, her home office and everything in it, and all their other belongings.

 

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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