IDAHO CITY • Calamity Jayne’s, Sarsaparilla Ice Cream Parlor, Main Street Floral and Candle Shop, Old Time Photo and Idaho City Trading Post all were a hub for tourism on the brink of the summer season. All five businesses were completely destroyed by a fire sparked early Friday morning, along with one vacant storefront on the north end of the block.
Idaho City Fire Chief Terry Teeter said it took about four hours of work by four different fire agencies, 7 fire engines and 25 firefighters to extinguish the four-alarm blaze that started at about 2:45 a.m. Idaho City firefighters remained on scene all day to work with an Idaho fire marshal. The investigation into the cause of the fire could take weeks, Teeter said.
A full damage estimate wasn’t available Friday, but the Boise County Assessor’s Office valued the entire complex at about $311,000.
It was “just a standard structural fire: once it lights it goes,” Teeter said.
Idaho City resident Brandy Burtlow said the flames lit up the whole community.
“You could have driven down the highway with your lights off,” she said.
Rhonda Jameson, who has lived in Idaho City for 23 years and owns the Simply Fun toy shop on Main Street, said she heard the town sirens going off at about 3 a.m.
From her balcony window, she saw the flames.
“The flames were way, way, really, really high,” Jameson said. “The power lines were crackling.”
She and her husband threw on their clothes and went out to wake neighbors who were still sleeping, despite the roar of the fire. Within 10 minutes, the fire had gone all the way down the boardwalk, Jameson said.
“Once we felt like everybody was awake, we came back in and started calling everyone that had businesses,” Jameson said.
Randy Barrett co-owns the entire destroyed block with his wife, Toni. “Forty years of my life is here,” he said. “This is a major change for all of Idaho City.”
He and resident Bill Stirling recalled building the string of stores over the past four decades. It started when Stirling bought the land in 1972.
“That side of Main Street (had) nothing on it,” Stirling said, pointing to the recently burned block. It was “kind of a swamp.”
Barrett bought the land and three businesses from Bill Stirling in 1984. He incorporated two Forest Service buildings dating from the 1920s into the parcel, now called the “Vigilante Complex.” Preserving the history of the community and sharing it with locals and tourists was meaningful work, Barrett said.
Recently, Barrett planned to sell the block and had reached a deal with prospective buyers just two weeks ago. He called them Friday morning and showed them photos of the destruction. He understood when they backed out of the deal, he said.
He contacted his insurance and expects them to help rebuild, but he’s concerned for his renters who lost their buildings and inventory they planned to push for the summer season, the community’s biggest economic time of year.
Fire has ravaged other Idaho City businesses in recent years: Donna’s Place, which is across the street from the boardwalk, burned down in 2004 and 2010. Trudy’s Kitchen was gutted by fire in 2008.
Friday’s fire burned the boardwalk businesses but it stopped before spreading to the historic Mercantile and Boise County Courthouse, which date back to the late 1800s.
“Them buildings were really old,” Stirling said of the gutted buildings he had helped assemble.
His wife, Joan, spoke of seeing hard work devoured by flames: “It hurts pretty bad for him to see what he built burn down.”
Three events in June all bring much-needed business to Idaho City: the Idaho Rally International, Gold Dust Rodeo and Idaho City Frontier Days.
“That’s a good amount of money every weekend that (owners of the burned businesses) are missing out on,” said Ashley Elliott, who works at Calamity Jayne’s on the weekends. “Maybe this whole town will miss out on it if this boardwalk isn’t here to stop at.”
Those business owners include Randy Barrett’s brother, Jim, who runs Calamity Jayne’s but couldn’t stand visiting the scene after the fire was out.
“This means everything for my dad. This is his livelihood,” said John Barrett, Jim’s son.
“Calamity Jayne’s is the oldest single-owned business in Idaho City. He’s the only owner out here that’s continually owned the business since back in the ’70s,” Randy Barrett said.
This would have been Becky Gilbert’s sixth summer running Sarsaparilla Ice Cream Parlor and Main Street Floral and Candle. Nine of her employees are now out of work.
“I loved that shop,” she said, fighting back tears.
Randy Barrett purchased the ice cream shop in 1984. Since, it has connected the business community to the high school, he said.
“We’ve hired over 100 students here going through for their first jobs,” he said.
Jameson, the toy shop owner, spoke of a recent sound economy, with seven new or reopening businesses moving into the town.
The fire put local business owners on edge, she said, and she worried about a “ripple effect” on other businesses in the area.
“ ‘Do I have a business? I don’t know.’ People wake up and they didn’t have a place to go to work,” she said.
One of those new businesses would be Wallula’s, a coffee shop to be started by Bill and Connie Gillenwater, who moved to Idaho City just two weeks ago from Columbus.
Bill Gillenwater said that when he heard the commotion Friday morning, he rushed out of his house with water bottles for the firefighters. When he saw what was happening he took video with his phone. But he also felt a lump in his throat that convinced him this community was his new home, he said.
Only one thing wiwll delay the couple from forging ahead with their coffee shop, said Connie Gillenwater.
“If our friends need our help, it may push (opening) back,” she said.
By late afternoon Friday bulldozers had pushed much of the debris from the fire off the road and a wire fence surrounded the entire complex. Teeter said the hands-on part of the investigation might not wrap up until Saturday.
“This is the main portion of Idaho City. Without it, it’s going to change everything,” Randy Barrett said. “We just don’t know what’s going to become of it now. Hopefully we can make things happen again and get it started back up.”