Repeat Fires Put Maine Apartment Dwellers On Edge

Two hundred residents of the small city of Lewiston, Maine, are homeless after a series of dramatic fires downtown. On three different nights, neighbors have been awaked by smoke and flames as old wooden apartment buildings were engulfed. Susan Sharon reports a pair of arrests after the first two fires has done nothing to ease people's fears.

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The people of Lewiston, Maine, are on edge. Over the past week, fires have destroyed eight apartment buildings and left nearly 200 people homeless. Two 12-year-old boys have been arrested.

But as Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports, the city still has a big problem on its hands: A surplus of condemned and vacant buildings.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Late Friday night, for the second time in less than a week, hundreds of residents spilled into the street to watch three more apartment buildings go up in flames. The arrest of a 12-year-old boy for arson had already shocked the neighborhood. A second big fire seemed unimaginable.

But when embers the size of grapefruits started falling on his roof, Joseph Monaghan says he was forced to pack up his elderly neighbor in her wheelchair and wait on the sidewalk while firefighters put out the blaze. In the end, Monaghan's building was spared.

JOSEPH MONAGHAN: It's very scary because out behind my building, there's five buildings all in that one little cluster. So if one of them buildings went up, they're all going to go.

SHARON: The next day, police arrested a second 12-year-old, saying they didn't consider the fires or the boys to be connected. The arrests did little to ease tensions. The wooden buildings, between three and six stories tall, are virtually on top of each other. On Monday, a suspicious third fire burned two more vacant units. Remarkably, there have only been a few minor injuries. But Wayne White says he and his wife have been losing sleep, and it isn't because of their 4-month-old baby.

WAYNE WHITE: You know, I'm always up, looking around, checking my house to make sure it's not on fire. You know, you just don't know.

SHARON: Both Monaghan and White say they would like to move out of the neighborhood that is home to low-income and refugee families, but neither can afford to. The housing itself is old and in poor condition. Many of the buildings were built in the early 1900s to accommodate textile workers who could walk to their jobs in nearby mills.

GIL ARSENAULT: We have a number of buildings where the landlords can't make ends meet. I think, by and large, their intentions were noble.

SHARON: Gil Arsenault is the director of code enforcement for the city of Lewiston. He estimates that between 70 and 80 buildings in a 30-block radius are either condemned or vacant. Several are expected to be demolished. Much of the problem, he says, is due to the economic downturn.

ARSENAULT: Between higher vacancies than normal, collection problems, utility cost, some of these buildings are pretty marginal, and they're very hard to run. So a number of landlords have walked away from their buildings.

SHARON: Police are stepping up patrols and inspecting vacant properties to make sure they are locked up. Last week, one of the fires was started in a building that had been condemned and was still occupied by tenants who hadn't paid rent in several months.

Meantime, dozens of families are homeless. Debbie Libby's daughter and her three grandchildren weren't home when fire broke out, but Libby says her 7-year-old grandson later rode by his burned-out building on the school bus.

DEBBIE LIBBY: And so Noah told his mom: Mama, I saw our house. Our house is broken. It's heartbreaking.

SHARON: Libby's daughter and grandchildren are currently staying with relatives. She says they need everything - the small and the large - from toothbrushes to a living room sofa.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.

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