Alpine residents describe emotional weight of devastating fire: ‘Part of me burned there’

Recovery efforts are underway after a May fire destroyed a historic building downtown.

By Travis Bubenik, Marfa Public RadioJune 7, 2024 10:15 am, ,

From Marfa Public Radio:

In the Big Bend-area town of Alpine, recovery efforts are underway after a fire last month destroyed a historic building in a central part of town popular with locals and tourists alike.

Multiple business owners lost their livelihoods in the fire, but locals have described a heavy emotional loss as well, given the generations of memories and history tied to the building.

Walking up to what’s left of the burned-out building, you can still smell the fire.

Shards of glass and charred chunks of wood surround the ground along the perimeter. Almost everything that was inside – a popular breakfast spot, a salon, an antiques store and more – is now just a pile of ash and debris.

“It’s a complete loss,” said Bill Ivey, the building’s longtime owner.

According to the non-profit Alpine Historical Association, the building – which has no formal name these days – was built after a previous downtown fire in 1911. Ivey says the recent fire was intense.

“It melted things that I didn’t think could melt,” he said.

The front of the burned-out building along West Holland Avenue in Alpine has now been covered by a temporary barrier.
Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio

Standing in a back alley where Ivey said firefighters first responded to reports of smoke, he recalled being inside one of the businesses when he saw the flames break through the ceiling.

“It was literally just a few minutes before smoke consumed the whole building,” he said. “At that point, I just stood back here and watched it burn.”

Just down the street, hair stylist and local city council member Eva Olivas has found a new temporary home for her decades-old salon that she lost in the fire. It’s been hard, she said, because the salon was a central part of her whole world for so long.

“I raised my kids there,” she said. “It was my everything.”

She said the fire destroyed all the equipment in the salon, even her haircutting scissors, but she lost more than possessions.

“It was my second house, I spent more time in the salon than in my house,” she said. “It was part of my life, and part of me burned there.”

Hair salon owner and Alpine City Council member Eva Olivas, outside her new location. Her decades-old former salon was completely lost in the fire.
Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio

Olivas isn’t alone in having a deeply personal connection to the building. In recent weeks, long-time Alpine residents have shared memories of the different stores that occupied the building through the years – shops where generations of West Texans bought their clothes and tools and everything else in the days before you could just shop online.

“It’s sort of the symbol of small-town America,” said Brewster County Judge Greg Henington, the top local elected official and a former local fire chief himself.

“That old building has been there a long time and it’s a centerpiece of the downtown area,” he said. “I just think, it’s sort of like losing an arm, people feel very personal about it.”

An undated image of the now-destroyed building in Alpine. From the early 1920s through the late 1960s, the building housed a single retail store.
Alpine Historical Association

Henington is currently finishing up a review he launched of the entire emergency response to the fire, which involved dozens of firefighters from across the region. He said he has identified areas where training and communication could’ve been improved, but in general, it was a tough fight.

“Fires of that nature double in size about every minute that you don’t get right after it,” he said. “Our guys did a great job, but that’s a big fire for a volunteer fire department.”

As locals in Alpine deal with the emotional weight of the fire, sadness isn’t the only feeling going around.

“It was a fire hazard,” local artist Yosdy Valdivia said about the building that burned.

Valdivia lost her paintings when the fire burned through a gallery housed inside the historic structure. She said she was inside the building with her baby and husband when it broke out.

Now, she’s concerned the building’s condition could’ve played a role.

“There were water leaks coming from the electrical lights,” she said. “We had pools during rain days that were like, dripping down from the lights.”

The Alpine Police Department said last week that an investigation into the fire did not reach a conclusion on how it started. The cause was officially declared “undetermined,” the department said.

Ivey said he did not have insurance on it when it burned down, but only because he didn’t realize his coverage had lapsed.

Alpine City Council members held a workshop on June 3, 2024 to hear from business owners and others impacted by the fire.
Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio

At a recent public meeting, Ivey told Alpine City Council members and a packed room of community members that he’s not sure what he’ll do with the building after getting it cleaned up, but that he doesn’t want to see it demolished.

“I grew up here, I remember what was there,” he said. “It means a lot to me to not lose it completely, so we’ll do everything that we can to preserve it.”

The Alpine Historical Association is meanwhile raising money to help the impacted business owners get back on their feet, and hopefully find places to reopen their shops.

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