Penley Mill burns in West Paris, nearby fireworks warehouse saved

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WEST PARIS — The former Penley Mill was destroyed by fire early Tuesday morning as 50 firefighters from a dozen towns worked in freezing cold to fight the stubborn blaze and protect a nearby storehouse full of fireworks.

Flames rose from the roof of the vacant mill building near the intersection of Penley Avenue (Route 219) and Greenwood Street. The building was fully engulfed at 1:45 a.m., a witness said.

According to West Paris fire Chief Norman St. Pierre, most of the town’s reservoir of water was drained trying to douse the fire. Firefighters had to load water into tankers from the nearby river.

Lack of water posed the greatest danger to firefighters, St. Pierre said. Other problems included water freezing in hoses and trucks running out of fuel.

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By 8:30 a.m., the flames had been extinguished and white smoke could be seen coming from one side of the remains of the mill. Because firefighters suspected chemicals were in the former mill building, a hazardous-materials team was called in.

Investigators from the state Fire Marshal’s Office arrived at the mill at about 10 a.m. Tuesday. On Wednesday, a spokesman said the damage was so extensive that a cause can’t be determined. Early responders said they believe the fire started in the middle of the building, according to spokesman Steve McCausland.

No one was injured, but what is left of the mill will probably have to be torn down, St. Pierre said. According to municipal assessing records, the two-and-a-half-story building was valued at $168,400.

St. Pierre said he believed owners Bill Birney of Paris and Karen Birney of West Paris carried some insurance on the property.

The nearby fireworks-storage building was damaged, but the melted siding and a buckled wall on the side of the warehouse facing the mill can be repaired, the chief said.

The fireworks store, which is the old workshop area of the mill, is about 100 feet from the burned building.

According to St. Pierre, the presence of fireworks “played no role at all in this fire. There was no problem as soon as we got water on the back of the store,” he said.

There was no damage to the merchandise in the store from either heat or water, St. Pierre said.

AAH Fireworks opened a store at the location in June 2012. As firefighters were called to the scene early Tuesday morning, the dispatcher warned them to beware of possible explosives in the storage building.

Fireworks store owner Andre Vandenbulcke, who is leasing the property from the Birneys, told the Sun Journal in July he planned to renovate the site in August and add 17,000 square feet to an existing 800-square-foot warehouse. He planned to stock it with fireworks by the end of September.

As of June, Vandenbulcke said, 18,000 cases of fireworks had been imported from China to the West Paris location.

He planned to sell fireworks to out-of-state vendors in addition to selling them in West Paris.

Fire departments responding to the scene included West Paris, Oxford, Paris, Norway, Poland and Mechanic Falls, among others.

According to St. Pierre, firefighters expected to stay at the scene through the day Tuesday to put out hot spots.

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