More than six months after the Donnell Fire destroyed most of the historic Dardanelle Resort in Tuolumne County’s high country, owner Jim Lewis had another catastrophe on his hands.
The town of Monte Rio in Sonoma County received more than 10 inches of rain between Tuesday and Wednesday last week, overflowing the banks of the Russian River and saturating the area in flood waters.
It rose within inches of Lewis’ off-season home from the Dardanelle Resort, which he shares with his wife, Laurelin, and three children. The home — a vibrant red and a century old — is elevated nine feet off the ground.
“As far as natural disasters go, I feel like kind of a magnet at this point,” said Lewis, 40.
Lewis said his experience with the Dardanelle Resort not only taught him how to adapt to disasters, but how to have patience with the inevitable rebuilding process that follows. When the snow melts in the Stanislaus National Forest and winter rain passes in Monte Rio, work will begin anew, he said.
“In essence, the process has already begun with planning. Without a good plan you won’t have a good job,” he said. “I’ve been working hard to construct a good game plan that’s going to be seamless, that allows us to operate the business and have a construction project at the resort at the same time.”
In spring, the Dardanelle Resort (as well as Lewis’ home) will again be up and running, he said.
“With my house or with the resort, don’t count us out because we’re not done yet,” Lewis said. “We’re very much one hundred percent in. We are rebuilding this and we will go on.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, Lewis traveled in his neighborhood by boat instead of car. His wife and children evacuated to a family member in Sebastopol while he watched the house to protect against further damage.
Lewis lives in the Monte Rio home approximately five months out the year. The rest of his time is spent at the Dardanelle Resort property, which he bought with his wife in May, 2018. But since the purchase, most of his time there was spent in crisis rather than recreation.
On Aug. 1, the Donnell Fire ignited in a dense mixed-conifer region of the Stanislaus National Forest by an unknown cause. Days later, the fire exploded and crossed Highway 108. It incinerated the vast majority of the 12.5 acre property, including the nearly century-old main building (which housed the restaurant, bar, general store, tackle shop and family living quarters), 444 trees, nine cabins and three outbuildings.
“It was a total-loss scenario,” Lewis said. “The four motel rooms and RV restrooms were the only remaining structures on the property.”
By October, Lewis and crews from Lovett Excavating and Modrell Transportation picked through the charred skeleton of the disaster zone.
They harvested from the ashes a triangle dinner bell which hung at the back deck of the main building, an old shotgun, an antique fire hose reel and a Red Rider wagon that belonged to Lewis’ youngest son, Willie.
Several hundreds of thousands of pounds of twisted metal, rubble and toxic debris were removed the site before the snow began to fall in late autumn.
Lewis and his crew lived in the unburned motel room, strategizing with county officers and Forest Service rangers on future plans. Once Caltrans removes the winter season snow and the site is accessible again, Lewis said crews will break ground on the Dardanelle Resort, reimagined.
“It’s going to have everything that the old building used to have, but it will have more space. It will be larger and it will have a lot more modern amenities,” Lewis said. “It’s going to be a much nicer product.”
A tree that was 100 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter that used to stand out by the back of the bar will be incorporated into the new main building to remind visitors of the fire. The Dardanelle Resort will host a grand opening in 2020 with the new main structure and the entire property accessible to the public.
In the meantime, Lewis is gearing up for a temporary fix during the 2019 season to provide for the scores of tourists traveling within the upper-Highway 108 corridor between Tuolumne and Mono counties.
“We’re trying to keep the old feel of the property but bring in these new, more efficient items,” he said.
Temporary, prefabricated buildings will be set up just west of the construction site at the top of a wide meadow. The structures are intended to form a quad which will surround a large patio area for eating, drinking and relaxing.
A restaurant will serve from a limited menu, a bar will serve drinks, and a small store will stock necessities such as ice and camping items, he said.
“We won’t be carrying everything we carried last season just due to space requirements, he said. “But we will have what people need.”
Thirty-seven RV sites will be available and connected to a generator housed in a cargo container. The generator, which will use propane power instead of diesel fuel, will power the property in 2019. In 2020, an additional generator will be added and a new housing unit will be built for both.
Many of the refurbishments on the property will allow the resort to be more environmentally sound than it once was, Lewis said.
“We’re trying to put that in the forefront of our thought when we’re planning and building this property,” he said.
Lewis and his team are speculating whether an on-site gas station will be available during the 2019 season due to the high cost of replacement parts and needed safety regulations.
“We’re going in with the posture of yes we will have it, but we may not,” he said. “We’re going to do our darndest to get it up and running.”
The motel rooms will be used as offices and living quarters for Lewis and the crews, but they may be refashioned into a museum once the project is completed.
Working with the Forest Service, Lewis added that native flora — including sugar pines, Douglas fir and lodgepole pines — will be replanted throughout the resort property.
“They will be replanted in a thoughtful manner that’s not going to overpopulate the area,” he said.
Lewis acknowledged the sparse appearance of the burn scarred landscape, but said approximately 100 trees still stand on the acreage.
Lewis said the consequences of the Donnell Fire forced him to be more aware of forest management and how to avoid another disaster in the future. He said when he purchased the property, he intended to keep the dense foliage that surrounded the resort meadow.
“It was one of the beautiful things about the place, but unfortunately it was kindling surrounding the property,” he said.
Unregulated tree growth and density will no longer be permitted, he said.
“I’ve got to really manage this land a lot differently. Proper management has to be done or this will happen again,” he said.
The Donnell Fire burned approximately 36,450 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest near Clarks Fork and the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River, destroying a total of 54 structures including the resort, cabins and other residences. Nine people, most of them firefighters, were injured either during the fire or in its aftermath.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.