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Rash of Lewiston Fires Leads to Crackdown
05/06/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Residents of Lewiston are anxious, and city officials say they will do everything they can to ensure that the community is safe following a rash of fires in the past week that have destroyed at least eight apartment buildings and left nearly 200 people homeless. The third fire broke out around 3:00 this morning and heavily damaged several buildings, including two that were vacant. Investigators say they don't yet know the cause. But as Susan Sharon reports, state and city officials are undertaking a series of measures to prevent more fires.

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Lew fire 3 - Bartlett St. - photo, Susan Sharon.

The aftermath of a third major fire that broke out early this morning on Bartlett Street.

Flanked by state and local officials at an afternoon news conference, Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald put it this way: "The hammer is coming down. We're not going to put up with this anymore."

The crackdown will include stepped up police patrols, visits to vacant properties to make sure they're locked up and unoccupied, and the designation of a "priority response area" - approximately 30 blocks in and around downtown that will be the focus for police, code enforcement and social service agencies.

Police have already established a curfew for juveniles of 10:00 pm on weeknights and midnight on the weekends. But Police Chief Michael Bussiere says that might not be enough.

"In my opinion, especially regarding the younger kids, it may not be enough. For 10-, 12-year-olds, up to maybe 14 or 15 years old, it's probably not appropriate. It probably needs to be earlier."

Police have arrested two 12-year-old boys in connection with two of the fires. They say they do not believe the fires are connected. or that the two boys know each other. Both are in custody. Their arraignment has been postponed until next week.

But their arrests have not calmed the fears of residents who live in downtown Lewiston. "Everyone is nervous," says Ericka Myers. "Actually, I'm calling Met Life today for renter's insurance because I don't want to have to go without everything in case something does happen."

Myers lives about three blocks from the most recent fire. She says she'd welcome stepped up patrols by law enforcement and a stronger neighborhood watch. Just around the corner, Jacqueline Harris has put up a sign on the front door. It says: "This is not a hang out." Harris says she's had to chase a group of teenagers out of her building.

"There are teenagers that just come and they randomly hang out in my hallway," she says. "So I have a note posted and then there is a sign that's also posted, just for protection."

Susan Sharon: "Have you called the police about the teenagers?"

Jacqueline Harris: "I have not. I have told them to leave, posted the sign and no one has been hanging out since."

Harris has lived here since February with her three kids and worries about their safety. Housing stock in downtown Lewiston is old, built in the early 1900s for the convenience of textile workers who could walk just a few blocks to the mills.

Lewiston Code Enforcement Director Gil Arsenault says in recent years about 70 to 80 apartment buildings have been condemned or are currently vacant. He attributes the problems, in part, to an economic downturn.

"We have a number of buildings where the landlords can't make ends meet," he says. "I think by and large their intentions were noble, but between higher vacancies than normal, collection problems, utility costs, solid waste costs - some of these buildings are very marginal and they're very hard to run. So a number of landlords have walked away from their buildings."

Arsenault estimates the vacancy rate at about 20 percent. He says between 10 and 20 of them are expected to be torn down this year. At the same time, rents in downtown Lewiston are affordable for residents who work part-time or who work full-time earning minimum wage. A heated apartment goes for $600 or $700 a month.

Joseph Monaghan is a single parent who works as a painter. His building is close to two of the recent fires. "I wish I could move out of here," he says. "I can't afford it. Costs too much to live anywhere else."

Susan Sharon: "Where would you like to live if you could?"

Joseph Monaghan: "On the outskirts somewhere. Just not so close to everybody and everything. Because out behind my building, there's five other buildings all in that one little cluster, so if one of those buildings went up, they're all gonna go."

State and local officials are working to get housing and other assistance for the dozens of people displaced by the fires, including refugee families who have lost important documents. About two dozen people remained in a shelter last night. Many are also staying with friends and in motels.

But Red Cross officials say that's an expensive option and their resources have been depleted in the past week. They're hoping a housing fair scheduled for Wednesday in Lewiston will help families find a more permanent solution.

Editor's Note: Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald is encouraging individuals interested in sending a financial donation to mail it to one of the following addresses:

American Red Cross - United Valley Chapter
c/o Executive Director Jennifer Gaylord
1180 Lisbon Street, Lewiston
RE: Lewiston Downtown Fires

Salvation Army
67 Park Street, Lewiston
RE: Lewiston Downtown Fires

Other ways to help the fire victims can be found on the city of Lewiston's Web site.  They include:

Lewiston Relief Fund : - Donated funds will be facilitated by the United Way of Androscoggin County, and they will distribute to those in need..

American Red Cross : Financial donations may be mailed to the American Red Cross, c/o Executive Director Jennifer Gaylord, 1180 Lisbon Street, Lewiston, ME 04240

Salvation Army : Financial donations may be mailed to the Salvation Army, 67 Park Street, Lewiston, ME 04240. Contact phone number for other items: (207) 783-0801.

Catholic Charities : Accepting In-kind donations - (207) 523-2728

The Root Cellar, Lewiston: Various types of outreach being undertaken for fire victims: or (207) 782-3659.

Housing Fair: The Maine State Housing Authority is working with landlords, DHHS, and City officials to present a Housing Fair on Wednesday, May 8th, from 1 - 5 p.m. at the DHHS Lewiston Office, 200 Main Street. This is an effort to help individuals with short & long-term housing.











Photo: Susan Sharon


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