Several businesses destroyed in Downtown Mariposa fire

05/11/2012 10:18 PM

05/14/2012 12:04 AM

Firefighters are still searching for an explanation into what caused Friday's massive blaze in downtown Mariposa that destroyed a pizza restaurant and several neighboring businesses.

Firefighters responded to the scene around 8:30 p.m. after someone called 911 about smoke coming from the Mariposa Pizza Factory's attic at Highway 140 and 5th Street. Around 40 people were inside the business when the fire erupted, although no one was hurt, according to CalFire Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson.

The day after the fire, investigators were still looking into exactly where or how the fire began as the rubble continued to smolder. Firefighters used water judiciously to minimize sediment runoff into a nearby stream, and they did not expect the fire to be fully extinguished until Sunday.

The flames spread quickly throughout the historic building, which housed a variety of small businesses like the Pony Expresso Coffee House & Trading Post, Tracy's Yarns, Larry's Coins, Grace Notes Chimes, Mariposa County Arts Council and a bookstore.

None of the businesses were spared in the fire, although firefighters were able to save the nearby Mariposa Christian Fellowship Center.

The fire was contained to the pizza restaurant section of the building around midnight, although Christopherson said firefighters might be at the scene until Sunday.

Firefighters closed the area to traffic and moved a crowd of onlookers away from the scene. Christopherson said the fire spread so quickly because of the aging building's construction. For example, businesses inside the building shared a common attic, and there were multiple layers of roofing, which made it difficult for firefighters to access the flames. "With the loss of these businesses, it's going to be a big blow (to downtown Mariposa)," Christopherson said.

Luke Willey, co-owner of Mariposa Pizza Factory, said he doesn't know what caused the fire, adding he's thankful no one was hurt. "We saw smoke, we tore a little bit of the wall off that was smoking and smoldering and we tried to get to it as fast as (we) could," Willey said. "It just went up like match sticks."

Willey said his business does have insurance, and he expects the restaurant to eventually return. About eight years ago a wall fell down at the business, due to a rainstorm. "And the community got behind us then," Willey recalled. "We were shut down for about a year and a half. And we had the biggest grand opening we ever had. We're going to rebuild this, and we're going to have another grand reopening."

The approximately 9,000-square-foot building was constructed in the early 1920s, and it was owned by Willey's family.

The blaze wiped out several dozen jobs, including 33 at the pizza parlor. That's significant for this unincorporated community of 2,200. "Everyone was in tears," Mariposa resident Miriam Costello said Saturday. She was among the many locals who watched the building burn. "It's heartbreaking because the Pizza Factory is an icon to this town. Everyone here has a memory of it."

Costello said the other shops also were important to the community, particularly the gallery.

"They lost so much beautiful art that can't be replaced because some of the artists have passed away," Costello lamented.

While that art may be gone for good, the Pizza Factory will be rebuilt, Willey promised. He and his father, Ronald Willey, opened the business about 32 years ago. Ronald Willey bought the building a few years later. "We own the entire block," Luke Willey said. He was confident the building and all its shops had fire insurance. "We definitely will rebuild."

Katy Harrison, 52, who's lived in Mariposa for about 30 years, watched from across the street late Friday night, as firefighters attacked the blaze with several water hoses. Harrison said she knows some of the owners who lost their shops. "It's devastating to this town. Absolutely devastating," Harrison said.

"I felt the heat (from a block away)," said Sean LaFleur, who lives and works in Mariposa. He described the inferno as "hell on Earth," and he used his iPhone to record the horror. "It gave me nightmares, and I really could not sleep at all (Friday night)."

Christopherson said he didn't have an specific dollar amount for the fire damage, although it's at least $ 1 million.

About 75 firefighters responded to the scene from Mariposa, Madera and Merced counties.

Bee staff photographer Tracy Barbutes contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196. Sun-Star City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.


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