Finally, around 6 p.m. Wednesday, in spite of a blanketing, ashy haze and burning aroma still choking the downtown neighborhood, the shell-shocked city was free to breathe again.

This freedom comes courtesy of dozens of local emergency responders, whose training, experience, wits and determination contained the tremendous inferno in Lewiston’s Cowan Mill. It was truly heartbreaking to see that precious landmark destroyed, after standing tall for more than 150 years.

But it must be recognized that a greater tragedy was avoided, thanks to our firefighters and police. They earned their pay yesterday, and our deepest gratitude. Without a doubt, their quick-thinking stopped the Cowan flames from escaping and releasing their might onto other, nearby buildings.

For a moment, it almost happened. Burning embers wafted across Main Street, where throngs of spectators had gathered to watch the Cowan burn, and set the roof of Bates Mill No. 5 alight. If that big mill had caught flame, these people would have been between two bad blazes.

And that would have been the least of the worry. A burning Mill No. 5 would have been a real nightmare scenario — a likely uncontrollable mass of flames threatening all of Lewiston’s aged, crowded downtown neighborhoods and business districts.

Myriad structures in downtown are essentially large piles of seasoned firewood assembled into apartment buildings, houses and office buildings. The collateral damage a sweeping fire could cause would have been immense. This must have been in firefighters’ minds when the big mill’s roof showed smoke.

It was doused. The Cowan, however, was lost. Rachel Desgrosseilliers, of Museum L-A, perhaps said it best when she stated, “History is burning.” The Cowan Mill and what it represented cannot be replaced; its recent, decrepit state belied its place in history as the forebearer of Lewiston’s industrial heritage.

A community should not lose touch with its history. Hopefully, the Cowan fire can forge renewed efforts to celebrate the history of Lewiston-Auburn.

In the interim, find a firefighter or police office and shake their hand. What they did to control that blaze and the swelling crowd prevented the Cowan fire from becoming much more dangerous. It was impressive and professional, under trying, stressful circumstances.

From the ashes, like how a forest fire works to replenish the landscape, new growth will hopefully sprout on the Cowan site and usher in a new era for the city.

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