Chief Paul LeClair of the Lewiston Fire Department said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that all four were set. He declined to connect the fires to one arsonist.

A fifth attempted fire was reported later in the morning, and may have been set at the same time firefighters were battling an apartment fire on Howe Street. The attempted arson was near a building at 61 River St. Officials declined to elaborate.

A fire at 44 Nichols St. destroyed a vacant home. Another gutted adjacent apartment buildings at 21 and 23 Howe St., destroying seven apartments and leaving about 20 people homeless. Two others, involving mostly minor damage, were at 135 Oxford St. and 48 Howe St.

All of the fires were under investigation, police Chief Michael Bussiere said.

The first occurred at 135 Oxford St. at about 1 a.m. That was followed at 2:58 a.m. by the fire at 44 Nichols St., at the corner of Holland Street.

At about 4:30 a.m., firefighters were called to Howe Street.

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Though no one was hurt in any of the fires, residents of 21 Howe St. said they escaped with luck and the courage of passers-by.

Shelly Brewer, who lived on the third floor of 21 Howe St., said she awoke to the sound of someone hollering outside her home. She got up and looked out her kitchen window.

She saw only flames. By the time she began waking her sons, ages 14 and 11, and her boyfriend, she could smell smoke. They rushed outside.

The same passers-by who woke her were helping people from the second and first floors, including an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

Moments later, they heard an explosion at 23 Howe St., which is behind 21 Howe St. and separated by only a couple of feet. Seconds later, fire engulfed the whole complex.

“It was only moments,” Brewer said. “We had no time.”

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At about 9:30 a.m., she stood on the sidewalk across the street, watched firefighters and held an American Red Cross blanket over her shoulders.

The Red Cross sent about 10 people to the scene and were offering emergency shelter, food and support.

On his Facebook site, Lewiston Superintendent of Schools Bill Webster said six students in total were displaced. They attend Montello Elementary School, Lewiston Middle School and Lewiston High School.

Kristie Graham, who went to the Howe Street scene to see friends who lived there, said she worried that the four fires happening all in one night was eerily similar to last spring’s fires in downtown Lewiston.

“I don’t even live in the downtown,” she said. “But I am a Lewiston resident, and I feel it. It’s like it’s happening all over again.”

Last spring, an arson spree of downtown fires began April 29. When it ended eight days later, 10 buildings were destroyed and more than 200 people were displaced.

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Chiefs LeClair and Bussiere declined to comment on last year’s events.

The idea of an anniversary also arose at 44 Nichols St., where the vacant building burned.

But Crystal Jackson, who lives at 211 Holland St., counseled caution.

“We don’t know who did this,” she said. “We can’t jump to conclusions.”

She said she was getting up for her job as a newspaper carrier when she saw the fire next door. She woke her family and neighbors.

By the time they left their apartment at 211 Holland St., about 12 feet from 44 Nichols St., she could feel the heat from the fire inside her own bedroom. The heat torched her SUV, parked in the driveway that separated the buildings, and cracked the windows on the near wall.

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Though she lost her vehicle, she knew that people on Howe Street had lost more.

Brewer figured she lost all of her belongings on the third floor of 21 Howe St. All she owned could be replaced, except for her mother’s ashes, she said.

She, her neighbors and her landlord, Steve Cobb, credited passers-by with helping everyone get out alive.

Brewer knew one, an old high school friend, Barry Viscone. Another was a stranger.

Kuimiye Idris, a former Marine, had the hard luck of spending the night at a friend’s home at 48 Howe St.

He woke up to the smell of smoke. He ran into a hallway and discovered a pile of burning newspaper and phone books. He went outside for air and saw the inferno a block away.

He called 911 and ran to the scene. As he arrived, he heard an explosion in the rear of the building. The rear of the building was on fire, and he ran in.

“I was knocking and yelling,” Idris said. He didn’t worry that he might be hurt. “I wanted to help the people out.”

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