Brunswick fire consumes Red Cross disaster fund

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BRUNSWICK — Response to last week’s fire at 84 Union St. all but depleted the local Red Cross disaster relief fund.

The Mid-Coast chapter of the organization had to draw from other accounts to assist the 17 tenants who were displaced when the 12-unit building caught fire Feb. 16, Executive Director Connie Jones said. The organization is also asking for donations to cover the expense.

The Red Cross gave all the tenants vouchers for six-day stays at the Comfort Inn in Brunswick. Each family also received approximately $1,200 for emergency clothing, food and medication, Jones said.

About half of the displaced tenants were able to move back into their apartments on Tuesday. According to Beth Herman, who owns the building with her husband, Eric, the front apartments were minimally damaged by the fire, and thoroughly cleaned by ServePro, a company specializing in fire and water damage.

“There was no soot in the six front apartments, you could smell a tiny bit of smoke, but when they were done cleaning there was nothing,” Herman said.

The fire, which was deemed an accidental cooking fire by the state fire marshal, began just before 11 p.m.  in a back apartment. It spread to neighboring units, but firefighters were able to prevent the blaze from destroying the entire building.

But the rear apartments were left uninhabitable, and are in the process of being condemned and torn down, Herman said.

Those whose apartments are being condemned must find somewhere else to go. Two of the families have already found new homes, but three others are going to need additional assistance to find housing, Jones said.

The Red Cross met with the remaining families on Tuesday to come up with short-term and long-term plans, and Jones said she has been working with local housing authorities to find a place for the families. The building’s owners have also been working to find new homes for their displaced tenants.

“(Eric Herman) has worked so hard to get those six units back up,” Jones said. “This morning his wife offered to take folks around to look at apartments, to drive them personally.”

“They are not going to be on the street,” Herman said. “It is not our responsibility to find them a new place, but this is the type of landlord that we are.”

Jones called the Union Street fire “the single most expensive disaster we’ve had in many years.” Providing for the 17 displaced tenants exhausted “easily half” of the organization’s $21,000 single and multi-family disaster relief fund, she said.

That fund was already running low before the Union Street fire due to an uptick in home fires over the winter. Jones said the Red Cross has responded to 26 fires since July 1, 2010 – twice the usual number for that time of year. She said the majority have occurred since the third week of November.

Jones attributed the increase to the use of “alternative heating devices,” like space heaters, wood stoves, or even candles, which can be dangerous if left unattended or improperly used. Due to the cold, snowy winter, Jones said, people have turned to these devices because they can no longer afford oil or propane.

“It’s devastating if they don’t have insurance. Their ability to recover, to find new housing, to replace articles lost in the fire, is really challenged and compromised,” she said. None of the 17 tenants at 84 Union St. had renter’s insurance, Jones said, and many received rent subsidies.

Donations to the Red Cross disaster relief fund can be sent to 16 Community Way, Topsham, ME 04086, or by calling 729-6779.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net

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Margaret Burke of Brunswick walks down the stairs of her apartment on Feb. 17 after salvaging some possessions from the aftermath of a fire that damaged the building at 84 Union St. “It was scary,” Burke said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Residents watch early as firefighters extinguish the apartment house fire on Union Street in Brunswick in the early morning hours of Feb. 17.

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