SKOWHEGAN (AP) – A fire that heavily damaged a Maine Army National Guard armory started accidentally, investigators determined Thursday.

The fire, which appeared to have started in the armory kitchen, will not delay the deployment of an engineering battalion that was using the facility as it prepares to go overseas, the state’s adjutant general said.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Tinkham II said the 133rd Engineering Battalion, Maine’s largest National Guard unit with nearly 500 members, will continue preparing for its scheduled Dec. 7 deployment.

“It will not delay them,” Tinkham said.

Four investigators from the state fire marshal’s office who remained at the scene until early Thursday determined that the fire was started accidentally.

The fire started at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Chestnut Street building’s kitchen and quickly spread into the ceiling and the rest of the building, said spokesman Stephen McCausland of the state Public Safety Department.

The blaze broke out after meals were being prepared by a caterer. No injuries were reported.

Military property stored inside the building at the time was lost, but Tinkham said it did not include vehicles or other heavy equipment.

The fire, which witnesses said sent flames 70 feet in the air, destroyed items such as uniforms, canteens and web belts that can be replaced.

“We have contingency stocks and can replace that,” the general said.

National Guard Staff Sgt. Chad Steward said many of the unit’s tools were lost.

“Half of the company’s equipment was here, the other half is in Belfast. It’s heart-wrenching,” said Steward. “At least 50 percent of our inventory is lost.”

Before the cause of the fire was determined, military guards were stationed at armories around the state as a precaution. They were taken off duty after the Skowhegan fire was determined to be accidental, Tinkham said.

Asked about the extent of damages, Tinkham said, “My understanding is the building is a total loss.” It is insured by the state’s internal risk management agency.

The 133rd is being deployed to the Middle East for up to 18 months. The battalion headquarters is in Gardiner and it has companies and platoons in Portland, Belfast, Skowhegan, Westbrook, Lewiston and Norway.

AP-ES-11-27-03 1035EST

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