Fire destroys 26 rooms at Oakhurst Lodge

Night clerk's quick response credited with saving lives

Brian WilkinsonMay 29, 2013 

A 19-year-old Oakhurst Lodge night attendant, Clark Oetken, is being credited with saving lives by quickly alerting hotel guests to a fire that destroyed 26 of the 62 rooms at the lodge shortly after midnight on May 23.

At the time of the fire, 14 of the 26 rooms in the single-story structure were occupied by 24 adults. No children were in any of the rooms. The hotel is located in the center of Oakhurst, on the northwest corner of Highway 41 and Crane Valley Road (426). The loss has been estimated at $1 million.

Karen Guillemin, public information officer for Cal Fire, said Logan "did a good job of getting people evacuated from the building."

"Clark got to every room very quickly, opened the doors with a pass key and alerted the occupants there was a fire," said Gloria Marshall, owner of the hotel with her husband Steve. "This could have been a lot worse if Clark did not act as fast as he did. The only important thing is nobody, guests or any of the 30 firefighters, got hurt."

"I was the only one here, so I felt it was my job to get everyone out of their rooms," said Oetken, who had just finished the night audit for the day. "A guest called the front desk and I called 911. I ran to turn off the main gas line and then I printed out an occupancy report so I knew how many people were in what rooms. Then I started alerting people as fast as I could that there was a fire. I was just concentrating on getting all those people out of the rooms. I had them all go to the office so I could account for everyone."

Oetken, who at one point almost blacked-out from all the smoke, said the majority of the guests were foreign, so there was little conversation. He said everyone got the majority of their belongings out of their rooms.

Oetken, who has relatives in the area, moved to Oakhurst from Portland a year ago and has been working at the hotel for about six months.

"I couldn't believe it happened -- everything was normal and quiet just minutes before, and all of a sudden, the building was on fire," Oetken said.

Oetken believes the fire started in a trash can outside one of the rooms.

An additional eight guests were evacuated from six rooms in two adjoining buildings, although those buildings, and an additional two-story building at the back of the property, were not damaged. The evacuated guests were housed at Yosemite Southgate Inn (formerly Shilo Inn) and America's Best Value Inn.

Yosemite Southgate Hotel & Suites rented 10 rooms to those evacuated from Oakhurst Lodge at about 1:30 a.m.

"We had three gentleman on motorcycles check in with us and one of the motorcycles had the front windshield melted off," said Debbie Mackey, Yosemite Southgate general manager. "This was a tragic event for Oakhurst but we are all blessed that nobody got hurt."

Guillemin said a computer business and an architectural firm adjacent to the hotel suffered water damage from the fire as water travelled downhill through the underground electrical conduit, flooding the two businesses.

According to Cal Fire/ Madera County Fire Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson, the fire quickly spread through the attic to the other rooms in the building. Due to the age of the building, it was not required to have sprinklers or fire stops in the attic.

Guillemin said for the safety of the firefighters, a decision was made about 1 a.m. for firefighters to back-off into a defense mode and protect surrounding structures including the adjacent Subway Sandwiches and Pop's Family Restaurant, directly north of the hotel.

Guillemin responded to a report on a Fresno television station that firefighters were running out of water, provided by Hillview Water Company, to fight the fire.

"Hillview Water Company worked closely with us to monitor the water situation and we had plenty of water," Guillemin said. "With the open attic and basement underneath, we were fighting a losing battle. The decision to back off the fire was for the safety of the firefighters, not for a lack of water."

Mop-up at the scene started at 5 a.m. Thursday and engines were still on the scene Thursday afternoon putting out hot-spots.

The hotel is owned by Steve and Gloria Marshall, who bought the property from Don and Marilyn Olson five years ago. The Olsons made major renovations to the building in 1995.

Prior to the Oakhurst Lodge, the property was the site of the only hotel in Oakhurst -- The Deadwood Lodge consisting of eight bungalows built in the mid 40s.

The current single-story building, with 13 rooms facing Highway 41 and 13 rooms facing the back of the property, was originally built in 1975 by Robert Huff, Marilyn Olson's uncle and his partner Maye Coller, Marilyn's mother.

Maye Coller died in 1977 and her stock was inherited by her children, Austin, Colleen and Marilyn.

In April 1994, the Coller partnership purchased Robert Huff's stock in Oakhurst Lodge Inc. and at that point, the Olson's managed the business before it was sold to the Marshalls.

The loss of revenue from the 26 rooms through the end of the year is estimated to be $375,000. With the current county hotel occupancy tax at 8%, that's a loss to the county of more than $30,000.

Most of the hotel reservations are made through booking companies online, and those companies have been busy relocating weekend guests as well as guests with bookings throughout the summer.

Oetken said the plans are to get the remains of the building demolished and cleaned-up within two weeks so the hotel can start taking guests again.

Marshall said the single-story building will be rebuilt and they hope to have it open by the end of the year.

Responding to the fire were five Cal Fire engines, three Madera County engines and two Madera County water tenders.

Darin McCully, a Cal Fire investigator, was at the scene collecting evidence from the charred remains last Thursday afternoon. As of Tuesday, the cause of the fire had yet to be officially determined.

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