Two months since the Donnell Fire burned up most of Dardanelle Resort and scores of cabins, blackened ruins and ashes of the historic recreation hub and camping area are still there, surrounded by a forest of mute, blackened trees, in a toxic burn zone cloaked in silence.
The new Dardanelle owners, Laurelin and Jim Lewis, who closed escrow on the place in May, were not present Friday morning, but workers they’ve hired to start cleaning up the destruction were out there in morning temperatures below 50 degrees.
Before 10 a.m., with the black trees slanting shadows and tufts of steam rising off the warming surface of Highway 108, Mike Lovett, a resident of Twain Harte with Lovett Excavating, fired up a six-ton loader on tracks to continue the slow job of clearing what remains of the old Dardanelle main building, restaurant and store.
At one end of the scrap heap, the stone foundations of an old cellar yawned naked in the black rubble. A few pieces of wood and lines on the ground showed where the porch with big wood lounge chairs used to be. Out around the back, a white pile of shattered plates lay scattered in black and brown debris.
A twisted, chaotic pile of scrap metal — burned generator motors, crumpled sheets of roofing, stoves, refrigerators, barbecue grills, propane tanks and part of at least one smashed porcelain-coated cast iron bathtub — stood about 15 feet high and 30 to 40 feet wide.
Close by stood a rusted, burned Radio Flyer wagon with three of its four tires burned off the wheels, containing a cargo of neglected socket wrenches and other hand tools.
Lovett, who runs his business with his dad, Steve Lovett, was loading chunks of scrap concrete from part of the old building’s foundation into a big rig trailer belonging to Rick Modrell of Modrell Transportation in Sonora. Adam Huffer, a Lovett Excavating worker, picked his way through part of the ruins.
All three men, Huffer, Modrell and Lovett, remember what the old Dardanelle Resort looked like and what it used to mean to so many people.
“A long time ago,” Huffer said, looking over the devastation. “I came up here.”
Modrell said he was there to haul away concrete for recycling in Jamestown and steel, tin and other metals for recycling in Modesto.
“This end was the cold box, the big walk-in refrigerator freezer where they stored a lot of the food,” Modrell said, pointing near the pile of scrap metal He took a few steps and gestured. “This was the laundromat and the showers. There was storage and a workshop there. This was the restaurant with the beer and the bar. The porch used to be right here and that used to be the store.”
Modrell grew up in Sonora. He said he probably first came up when he was eight or nine years old. His family still has a cabin close by off Highway 108 that did not burn in the Donnell Fire.
Mike Lovett shut off his excavator and stepped out of the cab and stretched and looked around.
“This is a tragedy,” Lovett said. “Think of how many people came up here over the years. I grew up in Twain Harte. I’m third-generation up here and my son, he’s three years old, he’s fourth generation. I wanted to bring my kid up here but it’s not going to be the same. This is completely different.”
Rebuilding the old place will take time and money, Lovett said, and it’s likely the new version will not retain the authentic, rustic qualities of the old Dardanelle Resort, which dated to the 1920s.
Mike Lovett is 36 years old. Asked how old he was when he remembers first coming to Dardanelle Resort, Lovett chuckled and said his first time he was probably in his mom’s belly.
“I remember I was three, four, five, up here with my parents’ parents, my grandparents,” Lovett said. “It’s sad. All the memories.”
Lovett looked up at the high, black ridges burned by the Donnell Fire looming above the opposite side of the Middle Fork Stanislaus and above Clarks Fork. Further west there was an active smoking hot spot visible about 9 a.m. Friday. The muffled whump-whump-whump of at least one helicopter could be heard from time to time.
“Erosion control in the mountains is going to be an issue,” Lovett said. “It’s all going to want to come down into the streams. That’s huge right there, all that silt and burned stuff coming down.”
In addition to the six-ton loader, the Lovetts had a larger, 20-ton excavator on site to clear increasing amounts of destroyed building debris as their work progresses. They expect to be at it for at least a week. Working so close to all the devastation and destruction, and knowing what the place used to be like, Mike Lovett said the loss of Dardanelle Resort stays on his mind.
“It’s all coming back, where the bar was sitting, and where the porch was,” Lovett said. “Trying to remember what it looked like. It’s going to take more generations to make it look like it used to. It won’t be overnight.”
The Forest Service and Caltrans still have signs advising motorists Highway 108 is open but there is no stopping allowed for a 15-mile stretch that includes burned areas and begins just east of Donnell Vista, close to where the blaze was first reported Aug. 1.
It was the weekend of Aug. 4-5 when the Donnell Fire exploded and destroyed 135 structures, including 54 business buildings, cabins and other residences. The multi-watershed mountain forest fire and its aftermath have contributed to nine injuries, most of them to firefighters.
As of Friday, the 57-square-mile burn zone was estimated to be 90 percent contained, said Diana Fredlund with Stanislaus National Forest public affairs. About 30 personnel remained assigned to the Donnell Fire, which has cost more than $33 million to fight and contain so far.
Fredlund said the cause of the Donnell Fire is being investigated by law enforcement officers with the U.S. Forest Service.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.