Mariposa business owners pick up pieces after devastating fire

05/13/2012 12:01 AM

05/13/2012 12:15 AM

Seven downtown businesses burned to the ground this weekend, ripping a costly chunk out of the town's economy and putting several dozen people out of work.

The overnight blaze caused an estimated $1 million in structural damage, but the economic loss will be greater for this historic foothill town.

"This is probably the most devastating fire they've had in Mariposa in over 30 years," said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson. He said the inferno will be a financial blow for the town. "The Pizza Factory was one of the community's cornerstone businesses."

The pizza parlor was packed at 8:30 p.m. Friday when the blaze began.

"It was standing-room only with about 80 people in there," said Luke Willey, co-owner of the Mariposa Pizza Factory. "We ripped the wall down trying to put (the fire) out, but it got into the attic. The building was so old, it went up fast."

Everyone escaped safely, and the crowd watched helplessly as flames spread from one shop to the next.

"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)."

By dawn, nothing was left of the pizza parlor or the adjacent businesses: Pony Expresso Coffee House & Trading Post, Tracy's Yarns, Larry's Coins, Grace Notes Chimes, the Mariposa Coun- ty Arts Council Gallery and the Windows on the World bookstore.

Investigators were looking into exactly where or how the fire began Saturday afternoon 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 today.

California Highway 140 was detoured around the fire Friday night, and that stretch of highway — frequented by Yosemite National Park visitors — wasn't reopened until Saturday afternoon.

About 75 firefighters from Mariposa, Madera and Merced counties and Cal Fire teamed up to stop the flames from spreading to the nearby Mariposa Christian Fellowship Church and elsewhere.

All the destroyed businesses were in an approximately 9,000-square-foot building at the corner of Highway 140 and Fifth Street. It was constructed in the early 1920s, and it was owned by Willey's family.

"It was one big, continuous building that had been added onto and remodeled many times over the years," Christopherson said. He said firefighting efforts were hampered by assorted dead spaces between the roof and the ceiling, which fed the flames.

The one- and two-story building had a full basement and attic, making the fire tough to extinguish.

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."

Bee staff photographer Tracy Barbutes contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or (209) 578-2196.

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