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“The hammer is coming down,” Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said Monday, referring to a rash of fires in the downtown in the past week. “This is going to stop.”
Police will step up patrols on foot, by bike and on the street, code enforcement officers will reinspect every vacant and condemned building in a newly designated downtown Public Priority Response Area and remove tenants who are there illegally. And landlords and tenants are going to be forced to clean up their properties to get rid of fire hazards.
The response area, roughly bordered by Park, Maple, Shawmut, Sabattus and Main streets, may be expanded over time, Nadeau said.
The response area was instituted after a meeting Monday morning of city and state officials, including police and fire personnel, in response to three major fires downtown in the past week.
The details of the plan were announced at an afternoon press conference at City Hall.
“We are exhausting every opportunity, every resource to make sure people in this city feel safe,” Nadeau said.
Late Monday, Nadeau estimated the cost of the fires to be around $2.5 million, but said that was an early figure and would climb.
Of that amount, about $2 million was for lost property and the remaining cost was for overtime of emergency responders and other costs associated with fighting the fires, investigating the cause and identifying suspects in connection with the Blake Street and the Pierce Street fires.
The city anticipates additional costs, including demolition of the condemned building at 116 Pierce St., and the now uninhabitable buildings at 114 Bartlett St. and 118 Bartlett St., plus the cost of investigating Monday’s fires on Bartlett and Horton streets.
Starting this week, police will work with Public Works employees to visit and check all vacant buildings, and anyone living there will be prosecuted, police Chief Michael Bussiere said.
And, if owners refuse to clean fire hazards around their properties, “we will take some enforcement action if we have to,” he said.
“We can’t say we’re never going to have another fire,” he said, but the city will take steps to minimize future risk. And, Bussiere said, city officials need the public’s help.
“The community needs to be vigilant. They need to understand what’s going on in their neighborhoods. That’s how we’re going to catch these people,” he said.
City officials are working, Bussiere said, to create a heightened awareness of building hazards and potential criminal behavior because people “are fed up. They want to stay in their neighborhoods. They want this to stop.”
Bussiere said the city has received help from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the Violent Crimes Task Force, the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to coordinate the response area.
In addition to more police, fire and code enforcement presence in the designated response area, starting Tuesday the city will issue 30-day punch passes to all owners and tenants of multifamily and single-family structures inside that zone so they can bring trash and bulky waste to the city landfill.
Owners and residents can apply for the pass at the Finance Office at City Hall, and must bring proof of ownership or residency. Passes will expire June 8.
City officials are also working to review the city code, Nadeau said, to see if anything more can be done to ensure building safety. And, city staff will also review city ordinances regarding fire safety and apartment buildings.
Although a number of pets were lost in the fires and one police officer was slightly injured while entering a building Monday morning, there have been no serious injuries. Bussiere said that’s because fire and police officials responded quickly, knocking on doors and forcing people to leave.
“We had to pick up kids and walk them down the stairs so the adults would go,” he said, because so many people wanted to take time to collect possessions. There was no time to let them do that, he said, because the fires moved so quickly through each of the structures.
Asked if the lack of injuries was luck, Bussiere said “I don’t think we’re just lucky. We’re good.”
Fire Chief Paul LeClair agreed, praising his department and thanking firefighters outside the city who responded under mutual aid agreements. “I can’t say enough about the outpouring of support,” he said, by other departments who helped fight the fires in “heavily damaged and very dangerous” buildings.
At Monday’s press conference, Mayor Robert Macdonald thanked police, fire and other first responders for their good work and “a job well done.”
He praised the cooperation and coordination of emergency response and pledged to work with Gov. Paul LePage, local lawmakers and state officials to see what could be done to get financial relief for the city.
Also attending the press conference were representatives from the city’s code enforcement department, City Councilor Mark Cayer, representatives of the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the acting director for multicultural affairs of the state Department of Health and Human Services, who has been helping coordinate social service response for fire victims.