Fires in old Lawrence paper mill suspicious

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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Firefighters in Lawrence, for the third time this month, battled a suspicious fire in an abandoned paper mill complex.

The blaze broke out in the rear of the former Merrimac Paper Mill yesterday afternoon. It was reported at 2:23 p.m., and the first fire crew arrived two minutes later, said acting fire Chief Brian Murphy

Murphy said that fire and a second blaze under a nearby bridge on the Merrimac River, as well as two three-alarm fires Aug. 8 in the same complex, might have been intentionally set.

“In that mill complex, there’s no power, no gas. They’re definitely suspicious fires.’’

No injuries were reported in any of the fires.

Since the Fire Department lost nearly a quarter of its 100 firefighters July 1 due to budget cuts, it has relied on help from surrounding communities for major fires. On Aug. 8, when two large fires swept through the old mill, firefighters from 14 communities responded. But the Lawrence department extinguished yesterday’s fire after entering the abandoned building and quashing the flames before they grew.

At a meeting in Lawrence on Aug. 11, officials from surrounding cities and towns complained about being called on to help so often. The chairman of North Andover’s board of selectmen said his town had assisted Lawrence eight times since the beginning of July. “Everything is going to Lawrence,’’ said Daniel P. Lanen at that meeting, “and Lawrence doesn’t have the manpower to respond and help our cities.’’

Firefighters were able to confine yesterday’s mill fire to a section of one building, but that required entering a building that fire officials designated a no-go zone, Murphy said.

Each of the half dozen main buildings and several smaller interconnecting buildings in the complex is marked by a giant red X, indicating it is hazardous or a potential trap for firefighters.

The same system was in place at an abandoned warehouse on Norfolk Avenue in Roxbury and was credited with preventing injuries last weekend, when a nine-alarm blaze erupted.

Seeing the X, a fire official ordered firefighters not to enter the building. It collapsed minutes later.

During yesterday’s fire, Murphy said firefighters needed to enter the maze-like building, which has gaping holes in the floors where giant machinery once stood, to control the fire.

“If we stand by and wait for that to consume the mill, we could be there for three to four days,’’ Murphy said. “We actually do have to go in and try to locate the fire.’’

State fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan’s office is working with local officials to investigate the fires.

Coan said last night that it was also suspicious that all four fires broke out in broad daylight on weekends.

“It raises it to a higher level,’’ he said. “But the investigation is wide open.’’

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at

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