A year later, business owners recall fire’s horror

BELLVUE – With its power down, the Mishawaka’s food rotted as flames lapped at the iconic, nearly 100-year-old bar and concert venue last June.

The Mishawaka, located in the heart of Poudre Canyon, ultimately would close for 27 days as the High Park Fire raged in the mountains west of Fort Collins.

The inferno came as a surprise to Mishawaka owner Dani Grant, especially after the Hewlett Gulch Fire, which had come within a few miles of the Mishawaka after starting May 14. Her business had shut down for that fire, so Grant feared another closure as smoke filled the skies.

“It was just the nightmare all over again,´ said Grant, who has owned the Mishawaka for more than three years.

The High Park Fire, ignited by lightning, started June 9, 2012. It burned more than 87,000 acres and destroyed 259 homes and structures. A year later, business owners recalled the devastation wrought by the blaze.

Throughout the fire, Grant never knew for sure whether her business had survived. She received phone calls from reporters telling her that her business had perished. Although the restaurant was not listed as a burned structure, she said, authorities could not confirm for certain that the Mishawaka had survived.

Morale sank among her temporarily unemployed workers, although she kept paying them. She attended meetings at the Ranch in Loveland, where authorities called evacuees into a room to inform them that their properties had been razed.

“That was highly emotional and heart-wrenching to see people just waiting with bated breath for the moment when they find out which room they were going to be called into,” she said.

When authorities allowed Grant to return to the Mishawaka, she found $10,000 worth of spoiled food. She also had lost a full month of sales during her business’ busiest time of year.

Grant cried, knowing that firefighters had kept flames that came within a few feet of her business at bay. Her employees got to work to clean the place, which took four days. She replaced a maggot-infested cooler.

Grant did not receive insurance reimbursement until November. Insurance covered some of her payroll and inventory losses, but not all of it.

“It was very difficult from a cash-flow perspective,” she said. “We almost had to go to court to get anything back.”

The Mishawaka reopened on the Fourth of July, but business was slow at first. People didn’t want to immediately return to the canyon.

The fire still affects her decisions. She has remained cautious this year, booking fewer concerts and only ones that she feels certain will generate revenue.

She is encouraged by the numbers she has seen so far. This June, people have flocked to the canyon with its brilliant purple flowers and light green grass on charred soil.

Black water and mudslides

Ryan Barwick, owner of Rocky Mountain Adventures, a whitewater rafting company, was driving up Floyd Hill on Interstate 70 west of Denver when he spotted the smoke plume rising to the north.

Rocky Mountain Adventures, which Barwick has owned for three years, stopped operating for a full month during the High Park and Hewlett Gulch fires. The fires came during spring runoff, the start of the rafting season.

Barwick’s company typically books trips during June for July. The latter month is his busiest time of the year. He had to shift many of his trips to Clear Creek.

“It was the worst season on the Poudre since the Poudre has been rafting commercially,” he said.

The company also saw a slump in its kayak instruction classes, swift-water rescue training courses and fly-fishing trips.

After the fire, mud and debris flooded roads during downpours.

“We were dealing with black water and mudslides and negative perception in the media,” Barwick said.

The drought compounded the situation. This year, however, flows have improved thanks to a deeper snowpack, and Barwick said business is picking up.

“There’s a lot of excitement to be up there after not being able to be up there last year,” he said.

Fire’s effects still felt

Cody Muchow, manager of St. Peter’s Fly Shop in Fort Collins, recalls how quickly the fire spread. Within one day, he knew the fire could put the shop in dire straits.

The fire stopped the angling shop from guiding clients in the Poudre River throughout June. Shop sales fell.

“That’s our local fishery,” he said. “That’s where our customers and clients are going to fish.”

The shop adapted, taking clients instead to the Big Thompson River. St. Peter’s Fly Shop actually ended up doing pretty well considering the fire, Muchow said.

“It wasn’t quite as bad as we thought,” he said.

Muchow fears the fire will pose challenges for the fishing industry in the coming years. Debris from storms and runoff that blacken the water will harm trout and the insects that sustain them. This year’s high water volume has helped clear the river of some debris, but more work and ongoing high flows are needed to restore water quality.

The cities of Fort Collins and Greeley have spent millions of dollars on projects in the past year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this month $19 million in Emergency Watershed Protection funding for the state. The money will help cities repair stream channels clogged with debris, unstable banks and damaged water infrastructure – and help restore the Poudre.

Muchow is hopeful this work will allow the Poudre to restore itself, something that is important to his business and the region.

“The river is a landmark,” he said. “It’s a real big deal for the community.”

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