Last summer, a Sonora-based cook created several new items for the Dardanelle Resort menu.

People raved about the savory carnitas tacos and the decadent buffalo blue cheese fries, owners Jim and Laurelin Lewis said this week.

Now, more than 10 months since the Donnell Fire blew up and destroyed most of Dardanelle Resort and scorched the surrounding forest, the Lewises opened a store, and depending on how a county inspection goes Friday, a food trailer where cook Greg Williamson will be able to create more tacos and fries could open this weekend.

“Greg is a good friend and he’s been a rock-solid chef up here,” Jim Lewis said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Signs of rebirth and regrowth were evident Tuesday afternoon at Dardanelle Resort. On the hill behind the resort, blackened trees that looked like so many matchsticks mixed with green grass and ferns and shrubs pushing up from the burned soil.

Eight families were staying in the resort’s RV campground and some of them were walking their dogs in the afternoon sunshine. Some motorists stopped to ask questions and purchase ice cream bars and fruit popsicles from the cooler inside the 12-foot-by-60-foot modular building that houses the store.

Laurelin Lewis showed a visitor over by the horseshoe pits, where a wood bear sculpture, cut and carved by a chainsaw artist a month before the Donnell Fire, survived the blaze.

The food trailer is an aging custom-made that was previously owned by a man who ran a Frostee-style menu out of it in Sonoma County, Jim Lewis said.

“It has a flat iron grill, a four-burner stove with an oven, and a deep fryer,” Jim Lewis said. “Laurelin found it online. I went and looked and said, ‘This is it.’”

In addition to Williamson’s specialties, they plan to offer burgers, fries, milkshakes, and hand-dipped corn dogs.

In May last year, the Lewises closed escrow to complete their $750,000 purchase of Dardanelle Resort. Two months later, the Donnell Fire roared through and leveled the main lodge that dated to the 1920s and several other buildings.

Recovering from the emotional and physical losses have tested the Lewises and their employees but they say they are trying to stay focused on doing one thing at a time, to rebuild their business at a sustainable pace.

“Our insurance has been spot on with everything,” Jim Lewis said. “They’ve helped us to get the ball rolling and afforded us this rebuild opportunity. If we didn’t have that happen we’d be dead in the water.”

With the store open and the food trailer expected to open soon, the next phase of rebuilding will be a two-story main lodge, which the Lewises hope to complete this summer and have open for business by April 2020. If all goes as planned, they won’t need the modular building for the store beyond this October or November, depending on when winter returns to the high east end of Tuolumne County.

The new main lodge will look similar to the old one with the addition of three dormers on the roof to create more space in the second story, Jim Lewis said.

The lodge will house a store and restaurant, a bar and a lobby for lodging guests, with a front desk, a fireplace, and a large seating area.

“Everything the old building had in a more modern presentation,” Jim Lewis said. “That first one was built before there was running water here. Everything was done haphazard over the years. We’re bringing the Dardanelle Resort up to date.”

Once the main lodge is in place, in coming years the Lewises plan to rebuild guest cabins in the meadow area, and, as more plantlife and trees come back and the watershed continues to recover, they hope to “recreate that same surreal environment up here, we’re going to try to rebuild that,” Jim Lewis said.

The pace of rebuilding will depend in part on how many visitors and campers decide to stop or stay at Dardanelle Resort, he said.

“When you have 12.5 acres burned, and you have to clear it and completely rebuild, you have to put blinders on and focus on one thing at a time,” Jim Lewis said.

The Lewises are grateful for the dozen or so workers from Armstrong Logging and Lovett Excavating, who have helped them out this year.

“We had to take down more than 500 trees to make the property safe when we opened just after Memorial Day,” Jim Lewis said. “We opened the store in early June.”

The Lewises are planning to put in more signs advising eastbound and westbound motorists the store is open. They’ve noticed some westbound travelers coming from the Nevada side of the Central Sierra aren’t seeing their signs until they pass the resort.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service reopened Clark Fork Road just west of Dardanelle Resort last week. The need for extensive hazard tree removal and burn area mitigations kept the popular tributary roadway closed since the Donnell Fire broke out last August. At least three forest roads, a dozen trails, five trailheads, and one campground remain closed in the 57-square-mile Donnell Fire burn.

The Forest Service says the Donnell Fire started at 5:49 p.m. Aug. 1. Winds stoked the blaze and it blew up the weekend of Aug. 4 and 5, destroyed 134 structures besides the Dardanelle Resort main lodge, more than 50 business buildings, cabins and other residences, and the unused, historic Dardanelle Bridge that used to carry Highway 108 over the Middle Fork Stanislaus River. Forest Service investigators have not disclosed a cause, which cost more than $36 million to fight.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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