LEWISTON — Downtown trash might not have caused Thursday morning's fires, but city officials know it makes the fires worse.
"When you have trash or old mattresses stacked up between buildings, it's a problem," said Jeff Baril, the city's police and code enforcement liaison. "It's always been a problem, and we know it. We know where the problems are."
City fire, public works and code enforcement staffers were out in force in the wake of Thursday's five downtown fires, double-checking known abandoned buildings and looking for potential hazards.
Baril said the downtown's condemned buildings are not the problem this time around.
"We locked them up pretty tight last summer and we've been back checking on them regularly," he said. "But if you want to know the real problem, it's trash. It's always trash."
Baril said city public works crews converged on 115 Shawmut St. on Thursday right after the fires. It's a condemned four-story building with eight apartments, some remaining tenants who won't move out and it was covered in trash inside and out.
"It's a building we know is in trouble," Baril said. "The guy is losing it, and there's not much he can do. So we cleaned it to get rid of the debris around it."
City crews carried away truckloads of garbage, wood and abandoned furniture Thursday because it was all a potential fire hazard.
Shanna Bartlett, 29, one of those remaining tenants, she said she's hoping to find a new place to live as soon as possible. She complained that many of her upstairs neighbors used the building's backyard as a dump for their household trash.
"I've been working on getting that place for months," Baril said. "I knew how bad it was, but now that the snow has melted, you could see all the garbage out there. It was just a mess."
It's one of many places the city is watching, Baril said.
"We went out yesterday and checked on all the vacant properties," he said. "We've done a lot since last year, and we're continuing what we've done. We're inspecting buildings all the time. We've gotten rid of a lot of vacant properties and cleaned up others. We've made it clear we are going to clean this downtown."
City Administrator Ed Barrett said the city is opening its landfill to downtown residents and landlords in a program similar to last year's. The city opened the landfill and urged landlords to clean up their buildings and bring flammable trash and old furniture that had littered the downtown to the dump. They did, bringing in 172 tons.
Residents and property owners in the city's block grant area of downtown — the 1.25-square-mile area around Kennedy Park and east of the Androscoggin River — can get a free pass to the Lewiston Solid Waste Facility on April 14-25.
Landlords must provide proof of ownership and tenants must show proof of residency. They can pick up their passes at the Finance Department office at City Hall.
Barrett said the free pass days would be in addition to the regular cleanup week, which runs April 26 through May 3. All residents or property owners can take their bulky trash to the landfill those days, using proof of residence — a driver's licenses, tax receipts or utility bills — to avoid tipping fees.
Barrett said he hopes the free pass helps.
"I've done some driving around downtown myself today, and it's not as bad," Barrett said. "There are problems, and there are locations where there are piles of debris but not as many as we've had in the past. Mostly, it's end of winter, everything shows up again and there's been poor policing by individuals with paper, debris and garbage scattered on the property."
He added, "I don't think the situation we are in now, in terms of trash and debris, is of the same nature as it was a year ago."
Ten downtown buildings burned in late April and early May 2013 when three fires were set in or near tenements.