State

Fire officials still trying to determine cause of Modesto fire

With nothing of value left in the charred rubble, Javier Montiel spent Monday figuring out a way to restart his business from scratch.

Montiel is the owner and operator of Montiel's Natural Products, one of the 18 businesses at 1050 N. Carpenter Road in Modesto destroyed by fire early Sunday morning.

"Hopefully, we still can receive orders, and I've been in contact with providers to see if they will allow us to take some product on consignment," said Montiel, who estimated an inventory loss of about $50,000. "We lost everything, and I really don't know right now when I can reopen because I need to find some credit. If I can get a loan, maybe I can find another spot nearby."

Montiel operated the lone retail store in the complex, which otherwise was filled with office-based businesses including insurance, media design, chiropractic, travel, a driving school and legal services.

Modesto Fire Department investigator Doug Machado was at the site most of Monday but said the cause of the fire had not been determined.

"Still nothing," Machado said. "It's still under investigation and we're still digging everything out."

The three-alarm blaze, first reported at midnight Saturday, caused at least $1 million in damage, Machado said Sunday. But those figures never include sweat equity.

"I would say 75 percent of what we lost is unreplaceable," said Tim Tafoya, one of four partners in the Maya Media design studio. "All of us just have to move on. We lost all of our equipment -- computers, software, hardware, cameras, everything for graphic design, our printers and all of our office equipment."

Tafoya said the firm should be back up and running in some form within a week. It's the same encouraging time frame expressed on a voice message by chiropractor Timothy Weimer, who calmly assures his patients that his practice will be operating again soon. "We're going to pull through this and be better on the other end," the message said.

Driving school back in gear

At least two businesses never skipped a beat. Corrine Love, office manager at Love's Safe Driving School, said her business had cars and instructors back out on the road Sunday morning.

"The cars stay with the instructors so they don't have to go and drive to a central location to pick them up," Love said. "Had they been parked in that driveway next to the office, they would have been gone."

Love said the company's computer server was salvaged from the rubble and a local recovery firm was able to access the student database.

Farmer's Insurance agent Donald Hallam also has the computer age to thank for his business continuing to move ahead.

"It's a real tragedy, what has happened over here," Hallam said. "It's affected a lot of people's lives. I had family heirlooms there. My dad was a Farmer's agent 40 years ago, and he handed down a lot of that stuff to me. All of that was lost.

"None of our clients' information has been compromised because everything we do is online. Right now, I'm on my front lawn with a laptop and we're in the process of negotiating a lease for a new office."

But for Montiel, recovery will be slow. In addition to needing a new storefront and shelf stock, he'll need to find a way to contact his mail and Internet customers.

"I normally take the hard disk backups with all our customer information with me every night," Montiel said. "But we left them in there on Saturday."

The Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance said Monday it will help the businesses and workers displaced by the fire. Displaced businesses should call 567-4985, and employees needing help with unemployment questions should call 567-4970.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

See Central Valley Report video below.



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