WATERVILLE — A fire early Thursday, caused by spontaneous combustion of rags soaked with oil-based stain, heavily damaged the former United Way of Mid-Maine Office on Kennedy Memorial Drive that was being renovated to become an audiology practice.

The fire at 105 Kennedy Memorial Drive was reported just before 5:31 a.m., according to Fire Batallion Chief John Gromek, who was at the scene.

Kevin and Jennifer Rancourt and their daughter, Becca Rancourt, bought the building in December and were renovating it to become Waterville Audiology, which Becca Rancourt operates on Silver Street. She purchased the practice in August 2019 from Anne Pratt Giroux and is renting that space.

Jennifer Rancourt, speaking just before 9 a.m. at the scene of the fire, said that they did not know rags containing oil-based stain could spontaneously combust, and she wanted people to be aware that it does occur. They are a fire prevention-conscious family and regularly unplug appliances such as toasters when they are not in use, she said.

“I had no idea rags on the floor could cause this devastation,” she said. “It’s pretty much a total loss downstairs.”

She said her husband had spent the last two weeks sanding and staining the original hardwood floors in the building, constructed in 1952, with an eye toward moving the audiology practice there in June.

“They had just finished staining at 10 p.m. yesterday,” she said.

They had been working on the hardwood floors on the second floor, using the oil-based stain, according to a news release from Waterville Fire. The used rags were discarded in a plastic bag and spontaneously combusted, burning a hole in the second story floor and into the ceiling below it.

Jennifer Rancourt took photographs on her cellphone of what the floors looked like two days ago, and what they looked like after the fire — a black, burned and charred mess.

Left: The floor at the former United Way building on Kennedy Memorial Drive as the stain was being applied recently before the fire on Thursday. Right: The floor at the former United Way building on Kennedy Memorial Drive after the fire that combusted spontaneously from stain-soaked rags on Thursday. Photos submitted by Jennifer Rancourt

“The floors were beautiful,” she said. “It is horrific. This is what it looks like now.”

She said the building, which is insured, is structurally fine and the damage is repairable. The family intends to continue with the remodel aiming to finish in June 2021.

“It’s our dream, and we were doing this together,” she said.

The two-story, wood-frame building with a brick exterior is located at the corner of Brigham Street off Kennedy Memorial Drive.

The fire drew about 30 firefighters from Waterville, Winslow, Oakland and Skowhegan, and Fairfield firefighters stood by at the Waterville fire station, Gromek said. The Police Department arrived at the scene first, saw smoke coming from the second floor and alerted the fire department, he said. Central Maine Power Co. also responded.

“When we got here, they had heavy smoke from the second floor,” Gromek said.

Waterville Fire Battalion Chief John Gromek, left, talks to Becca Rancourt, far right, and Matt Webber, Becca’s finace, and Jennifer Rancourt, between Becca and Webber, on Thursday outside the former United Way office on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville. The Rancourt family was converting the building into a business place. They had just finished staining hardwood floors when rags soaked in the stain spontaneously combusted, causing heavy damage. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

Fire got into the floors and required firefighters to pull down ceilings, he said. They left the scene at 8:20 a.m.

Gromek said he called the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal and a state fire investigator responded to the scene to confirm the cause of the fire.

“They were staining and left rags soaked with oil-based stain in a bag,” Gromek said.

He said in the release that such rags should be placed in a sealed metal container filled with water or hung out to dry until they can be disposed of properly.

The United Way moved out of the building in April, after the coronavirus pandemic started, and employees are working remotely.

Jennifer Rancourt said she and her family, who live in Freeport, were staying at their camp in Winslow when they got the call about the fire early Thursday. They plan to fix the damaged building and renovate “from top to bottom.”

“It is beautiful, 1950s flooring,” she said. “We removed all the carpets. There’s a lot of beautiful brick inside, and we’ll bring it back to its glory days.”

Meanwhile, they are scheduled to go before the Waterville Planning Board on Monday night to present plans for Waterville Audiology at the site. The proposal will be reviewed under the city’s site plan review ordinance.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.