Jan. 24—Lewiston Fire Investigator Paul Ouellette was a man who liked his coffee. So on the night of the big fire on Lincoln Street, I found out how he took it and brought him a cup.
It was an early evening in the late-1990s and the fire was a corker. It was going to be an all-nighter for both of us, so while the firefighters battled the flames, Paul and I sat talking about the nature of fire.
Oh, the things one could learn from Paul Ouellette when he got talking about fire science: V-patterns, balloon construction, accelerants, points of origin ... Paul was a man who took his job seriously and his zeal for the work was infectious. For a young reporter eager to make a name for himself, this was an important guy to know, and that would remain the case for the next 25 years.
At every fire scene I went to in Lewiston over the years, the first guy I looked for was Paul. There he was, gearing up at the back of his big red pickup truck, the omnipresent cup of Dunkin balanced on the tailgate.
While he suited up, we'd talk about the nature of the blaze presently burning before us. What do you supposed might have caused such a massive fire, inspector? Is it that balloon construction making it spread so quickly?
It was all unofficial at that point, of course. Paul didn't get around to doing his sleuthing until the fire was under control and that's when the real facts came out. But as long as a guy was earnestly interested in the nature of fire, and as long as you dealt with him fairly, Paul was as friendly and helpful a guy as you will ever meet.
Over the years, covering fires in Lewiston was a breeze for me, mainly because of Paul. Relations between the Sun Journal and the Lewiston Fire Department never faltered because they had this fellow serving as unofficial spokesman, and nobody I have ever worked with has done the job better or for so long.
Paul Ouellette could give a clinic on media relations. If I had my way, he would.
After 25 years on the job — that's 25 years of getting called out at all hours of the night and in all kinds of weather — Paul has hung it up and is going to do something different.
I'm happy for him, I truly am, because this is not just one of the best sources I've ever known, he's one of the very best people. Paul is a fiercely devoted family man, which I admire, and he's as generous as they come to those who have become his friends.
To properly state how much we'll miss him at the Sun Journal would require more exclamation points than our system can handle.
"Say it ain't so!" said reporter Chris Williams, when he heard the news. "Not only has Ouellette returned calls immediately after a fire has been extinguished, there have been times when he's answered his phone or met with me at the scene of an ongoing fire to give me live updates. We should give him an award."
"The first thing I would always do at a fire scene was to look for Paul and get his take on what's going on," said photographer Russ Dillingham. "Going to seriously miss the guy."
Also departing when Paul stepped out the LFD doors for the last time was a walking, talking archive of Lewiston fires. Paul has handled some of the biggest blazes Lewiston has seen in recent memory and he recalls vivid details about each of them. The fire that destroyed Harleys-R-Us blaze in 1999; the mighty explosion at the site of the former Hotel Holly in 2004; the 2009 blaze at the Cowen Mill; the downtown arson spree of 2013 when five apartment houses were torched ...
On and on that list goes and that's not to mention countless fires in homes, businesses, cars, dumpsters, vacant tenements, you name it. Anything that can be burned has probably been set on fire at one point or another in Lewiston and Paul Ouellette has been there to investigate every time.
He's possibly the hardest working fellow I've ever dealt with over the years, an observation echoed by Lewiston Fire Chief Mark Caron who deemed Ouellette "probably the most dedicated employee working for the city 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 is at the top of that list. And it's not only that a tremendous source and a great man is stepping out of our lives, his departure also marks an unofficial end of an era.
You won't find sources like Paul anymore because these days, relations between the press and the municipal departments it covers are no longer handled that way. There's no one-on-one, straight-to-the-source reporting nowadays because little by little, municipalities have been changing the way they communicate with the media.
If police arrest a bad guy in dramatic fashion, we're not getting our information from the officer who physically took the criminal down or even the sergeant who oversaw the operation. That was the old days, friends. These days, all information is funneled through a dedicated spokesperson, who very likely wasn't a part of the brouhaha at all, but who gets paid to collate information and send it out to the media in drips and drops.
With Paul gone, fires will be covered in the same manner. We won't get the nitty gritty details from the expert who investigated the burned ruins with his own two hands, we'll get them from a city official who likely has never donned a fire helmet but who has been advised precisely what the media is to be told. Just the facts, Jack. There's no need for personal observations or the kind of human touch that can make a news story sing and give readers experienced perspective.
Will that system work? Maybe. But as I near the end of my career, I already know that there will be a day where I'll wax on with illimitable nostalgia to anyone who will listen about the days when I got to work with a pro like Paul Ouellette. I got to sit on the tailgate of his truck, in the glow of the flames, and listen to that consummate expert ruminate on the dubious workings of the fire raging before us.
Because that's the way it was done back in the good old days, when reporting was an honor and a thrill. People like Paul made the job a pleasure rather than pure toil, and I can say without ambiguity that there will never be another like him.
Losing a great source is tough and as has been my way, I will now indulge in remorse, gloom and self-pity for a period yet to be determined. And while I whine and pout and mumble "poor me" wherever I go, I also wish Paul Ouellette the very best in his new gig because the very best is what this cat deserves.