LEWISTON — City firefighters are tired but well-fed.
They're getting a lot of thank-yous in the form of food from residents, businesses and students after a week of fighting three massive fires in the downtown. The fires destroyed apartment buildings on Blake, Pine, Bates, Pierce and Bartlett streets between April 29 and May 6. About 200 people were left homeless.
The gratitude hasn't stopped, fire Chief Paul LeClair said Wednesday. “That in itself is touching.”
At Central Fire Station on Bates Street on Wednesday, firefighters J.P. Adams and Matt Wiers hung thank-you cards and banners from Farwell Elementary School students. And then there's the food.
“We've had a little bit of everything, from snacks to pulled pork to pasta salad to crackers to cakes,” Lt. William Wallace said. “People are showing up in force. They're showing their support for us. It makes us feel good.”
It's the same for the city's other fire stations, the chief said. People are walking in with plates of lasagna and all kinds of bread.
"Yesterday, a woman picked up some cheese bread — it was still warm," LeClair said. "The Auburn fire chief brought us a cake. He and his firefighters wanted to treat us to pizza.”
Hannaford, Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Hortons have also brought food, LeClair said. He praised Sam's Italian Sandwich Shoppe for its response to calls in the past week for dozens of sandwiches.
“During a fire we rely heavily on Sam's to provide food; it's a pay-for service,” LeClair said. “Being as busy as they are, we call and say, 'We need 100 Italians.' We just don't order 10. They really stepped up.”
More than 100 firefighters worked each of the fires: April 29 on Blake, Bates and Pine streets; May 3 on Pierce and Bartlett streets; and May 6 on Bartlett and Horton streets. Just as many fought a 20-acre woods fire April 30 on College Road.
After even one fire, “there's a whole lot of work to do to follow-up,” LeClair said. Equipment has to be cleaned and put away. Yards of hose have to be cleaned, hung to dry, rolled up and put away.
In the midst of all that cleaning up, firefighters normally buy and cook their own meals, so to have food prepared and delivered is a nice surprise, LeClair said. “It shows the community cares.”
Farwell Elementary School Principal Althea Walker said she was driving to school early Monday when she heard there was another downtown fire. “I said, 'Oh, my gosh, these guys must be exhausted! They're working like crazy!”
When she got to school she called her staff together, telling them she wanted the school to prepare lots of food and thank-you cards. Teachers could use the food prep as lessons in math, civics and caring.
Teachers and students embraced the idea. Everyone pitched in. They shopped, chopped, sorted and cooked. Planning meals with charts and graphs, keeping track of which class was making what, students and teachers made dinners: king-sized pans of lasagna, kielbasa with rice and red peppers, macaroni and cheese, taco salad, pasta salad. They baked muffins, brownies, cookies. They divided the food among the four firehouses and delivered it.
Students made cards and banners, complete with hand-drawn pictures of firetrucks and stars, thanking firefighters for keeping the city safe.
Firefighters are exhausted, Lt. Wallace said Wednesday.
“We're still recovering," he said. "When you lose that much sleep and work that hard for as long as we did for the short amount of time, you get run down. But we'll be fine.”
He was on duty when the third call came in May 6.
“It was disbelief,” Wallace said. He thought maybe it was a false alarm. It didn't take long before he knew more apartment buildings were burning.
The magnitude of fires lately is among the worst in years, he said. “But we're all prepared to deal with the stress. It's our job.”
Walker hopes firefighters will visit Farwell school, when they're less busy.