Lewiston Fire Investigator Paul Ouellette was a man who loved his coffee. So the night of the great Lincoln Street fire, I found out how he took it and brought him a mug.
Paul Ouellette Lewiston Fire Department
It was an early evening in the late 1990s and the fire was a corker. It was going to be a sleepless night for both of us, so while the firefighters battled the flames, Paul and I sat talking about the nature of the fire.
Oh, the things you could learn from Paul Ouellette when he talked about the science of fire: V-patterns, building balloons, accelerators, points of origin… Paul was a man who took his job earnest and his zeal for work was contagious. For a young reporter wanting to make a name for himself, he was an important guy to know, and would remain so for the next 25 years.
At every fire scene I’ve been to in Lewiston over the years, the first guy I looked up was Paul. There he was, getting ready in the back of his big red pickup, Dunkin’s ubiquitous coupe balanced on the tailgate.
While he was getting dressed, we were talking about the nature of the fire that was currently burning in front of us. What do you think could have caused such a massive fire, Detective? Does the construction of the balloon cause it to spread so quickly?
This was all unofficial at the time, of course. Paul didn’t start doing his sleuthing until the fire was brought under control and that’s when the real facts came out. But as long as a guy genuinely cared about the nature of fire, and as long as you treated him fairly, Paul was as friendly and helpful a guy as you’ll ever meet.
Over the years, covering the fires in Lewiston has been a breeze for me, mostly because of Paul. The relationship between the Sun Journal and the Lewiston Fire Department never wavered because they had this man as an unofficial spokesperson, and no one I’ve ever worked with has done the job better or since so long.
Paul Ouellette could give a clinic on media relations. If I had my way, he would.
After 25 years of work — that is, 25 years of being called at all hours of the night and in all weathers — Paul has hung up and is going to do something different.
Lewiston Fire Chief Mark Caron, right, recognizes Paul Ouellette during a retirement celebration Friday at the Lewiston Central Fire Station. Ouellette joined the department on February 2, 1998, hired by Chief Mike Lajoie as a fire prevention inspector. Ouellette was then a volunteer with the Danville fire department. Ouellette’s wife, Lucy, second from left, and daughter Marianne joined him on his last day on the job after 25 years in the service. “Paul is probably the most dedicated employee working for the City of Lewiston,” Caron said. “He might even work for free,” he joked. “Could,” joked Ouellette. Daryn Slover/Sun Diary
I’m happy for him, I really am, because he’s not only one of the best sources I’ve ever known, he’s one of the best people. Paul is a fiercely devoted family man, whom I admire, and he is very generous towards those who have become his friends.
To say correctly how much he will be missed at the Sun Journal would require more exclamation marks than our system can handle.
“Say that’s not it!” said reporter Chris Williams when he heard the news. “Not only did Ouellette return calls immediately after a fire was extinguished, but there were times when he answered his phone or met me at the scene of an ongoing fire to give me live updates. We should give it a price.
“The first thing I always did at a fire scene was to look for Paul and get his perspective on what was going on,” said photographer Russ Dillingham. “The guy will be seriously missed.”
When Paul walked through the doors of the LFD for the last time, there was also a walking, talking archive of the Lewiston fires. Paul handled some of the biggest fires Lewiston has seen in recent memory and he remembers vivid details about each one. The fire that destroyed the Harleys-R-Us in 1999; the powerful explosion at the site of the former Holly Hotel in 2004; the 2009 fire at the Cowen factory; the 2013 downtown arson when five apartment buildings were set on fire…
This list goes on and on and on, not to mention the countless fires in homes, businesses, cars, dumpsters, vacant buildings, etc. Anything that can be burned has probably been burned at one time or another in Lewiston and Paul Ouellette has been there to investigate each time.
He is perhaps the hardest worker I have dealt with in the years, an observation echoed by Lewiston Fire Chief Mark Caron, who considered Ouellette “probably the most dedicated employee working for the town of Lewiston.
In the reporting game, there are simply some sources that impact your life more than others, and for many of us here, Paul tops the list. And it’s not just that a great source and great man is leaving our lives, his departure also marks the unofficial end of an era.
You won’t find sources like Paul anymore because these days the relationship between the press and the municipal services it covers isn’t handled that way anymore. Nowadays, there is no more direct reporting from the source because, little by little, municipalities have changed the way they communicate with the media.
If the police arrest a bad guy in a dramatic way, we don’t get our information from the officer who physically shot the criminal or even the sergeant who oversaw the operation. Those were the good old days, my friends. These days, all information is routed through a dedicated spokesperson, who most likely wasn’t part of the hubbub at all, but who is paid to collate the information and send it to the media in dribs and drabs. .
With Paul gone, the fires will be covered the same way. We won’t get every last detail from the expert who investigated the burnt ruins with his own hands, we’ll get them from a city official who probably never donned a fire helmet but was told precisely what the media are saying. Just the facts, Jack. There’s no need for personal observations or the kind of human touch that can make a story sing and give readers a seasoned perspective.
Will this system work? May be. But as I approach the end of my career, I already know there will be a day when I will carry on with boundless nostalgia to anyone who hears of the days I had to work with a pro like Paul Ouellette. I was able to sit on the tailgate of his truck, in the light of the flames, and listen to this consummate expert ruminate on the dubious functioning of the fire which raged in front of us.
Because that was how it was in the good old days, when reporting was an honor and a thrill. People like Paul have made their job a pleasure rather than a pure labor, and I can say without ambiguity that there will never be another like him.
Losing a great source is hard and as it has been my path, I will now indulge in remorse, gloom and self-pity for a time yet to be determined. And while I moan, pout and mutter “poor me” everywhere I go, I also wish Paul Ouellette the best in his new gig because the best is what this cat deserves.
Mark LaFlamme is the crime reporter for the Sun Journal.
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