Chief says rash of Laconia fires are all 'suspicious'

LACONIA — Fire Chief Ken Erickson said yesterday that the eight fires that lit the city from one Saturday to the next, including two major building fires, are all considered "suspicious" and under investigation.

The spate of fires began shortly before 3 a.m. on Sunday, September 22 when one fire destroyed a large, multi-tenant commercial building at 161 Court Street while a second charred a garage on Bay Street. The fires continued this past weekend with three minor fires around Water Street, another that damaged Pitman's Freight Room on New Salem Street and a third that burned the former Christmas Island Motel on Weirs Boulevard.

"I'm definitely very concerned," said Erickson, who said that along with members of his department and local police officials, the Office of the State Fire Marshall and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are participating in the investigation. "There were eleven people working the scene at Christmas Island until 2 p.m. on Sunday," he said.

Erickson said the most recent fires began around 1 a.m. on Saturday morning as firefighters extinguished fires in two dumpsters and a shed in the Water Street neighborhood. He said that as Captain Landry and his crew were returning to the station shortly after 2 a.m. they received a call of an alarm activation at Pitman's Freight Room, where they found flames from a fire outside the building reaching to the interior. Erickson said that although firefighters stopped the fire before it reached the ceiling of the wooden frame structure to spare the building, the damage could run to $20,000.

At 8:48 p.m. on Saturday numerous callers reported fire at the Christmas Island Motel. Firefighters from the Weirs Beach Station arrived within four minutes to find much of the two-story, wood-framed building ablaze. Captain Kirk Beattie sounded a second alarm while firefighters aboard the engine from the Weirs station ran two hoses from a hydrant in front of the nearby Christmas Island Steakhouse, which poured 1,000 gallons of water per minute on the fire. The ladder truck from Central Station, supplied by an engine from Gilford, added another 1,200 gallons per minute while another engine from Central Station laid hose from a hydrant near Stonecrest Condominiums to feed a portable deck gun

Erickson said that the overriding concern was to confine the fire to the motel, which was scheduled for demolition. At the Christmas Island Steakhouse, the Laconia High School Class of 1973 was celebrating its 30th reunion and there are a number of private homes in the neighborhood. Although the fire was contained relatively quickly, Erickson said that a crew remained on the scene throughout the night and it took hours to extinguish it.

Units from Gilford, Tilton-Northfield, and Franklin responded to the fire while firefighters from Belmont and Meredith and personnel from Stewart's Ambulance Service staffed the fire stations.

The motel land is to be used as the site for a housing development.

Erickson said that that the fire at Pitman's Freight Room began outside, where there was no apparent source of ignition, and the the Christmas Island Motel was without power when it caught fire. Likewise, he said there were no obvious causes for the minor fires downtown. Moreover, he said that the investigation of the fire on Court Street the week before "began turning suspicious" last week.

Chief of Police Chris Adams said that the fires have been referred to the detective bureau, which is investigating each as a separate incident. "We don't want to jump to conclusions that they're related, which could hinder our investigations," he said, stressing that "we're taking this rash of fires very, very seriously."