The owner of the Motherlode Lodge in Hatcher Pass said on Saturday she was "heartbroken" by its loss. The historic building burned to the ground on Friday evening under suspicious circumstances that the state fire marshal's office is investigating.
Longtime real estate broker Bonnie Jill Reese bought the lodge in 1991. After attempting to sell it in 2006 for $2 million, she put it up for auction in 2009. A post on the lodge's Facebook page signed by the Reese family said the 14-room property had been shut down for renovations and repairs of damage from vandals.
"It was very loved, we had plans for it," the post said. "We all grieve together the loss of this special place that held so many memories and the hope of its future restoration."
Calls to Reese for additional comment on Saturday were not returned.
Originally built as the Little Susitna Roadhouse in 1942, the Motherlode Lodge was rebuilt in 1968, borough property records show. Reese decorated it liberally with old-fashioned skis, animal pelts, carvings and all manner of Alaskana. The lodge's latest incarnation included a bar, a large dining room, a sauna, a well and a sewage treatment facility.
Set in picturesque Hatcher Pass three miles below Independence Mine State Historical Park, the lodge was beloved among locals and tourists alike. It hosted weddings, high school reunions, jazz and swing nights and well-known personalities, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, former governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and musician and pro-gun activist Ted Nugent.
"It's been closed for a few years, but I always hoped it would pop back up as Hatcher Pass got more popular," said Bill Tull, who used to gather at the Motherlode with other musicians to play swing and jazz standards.
The lodge was not insured at the time of the fire because it was not operating, according to the Reeses. It was appraised at $332,100 in 2015, with nearly all the value in the building and a much smaller percentage in the land, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough property records. Reese paid about $3,800 annually in property taxes in 2013 and 2014.
The state fire marshal's office is leading an investigation into the cause of the fire, said Beth Ipsen, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers. A deputy fire marshal has been to the site, she said, but the investigation is too fresh to release additional information. No one was injured in the fire.
The Reeses wrote that there was a break-in right before the fire started on Friday evening and asked the public to provide photos of the blaze's early stages and any vehicles nearby at the time.
The decision by fire officials to let the conflagration run its course sparked criticism among many, who wondered why the historic and singular structure could be allowed to burn to rubble.
"I sure am disappointed that they let it burn down," Tull said.
Fire officials stood by their decision to let the fire run its course. The building was in an area that did not pay for fire protection services and dousing the blaze would have required more trucks and manpower than they could spare, especially on a windy, dry night, they said.
"If we commit services outside the fire service area, we could be liable and found negligent in our duties to people who are paying taxes for our protection," said Bill Gamble, director of emergency services for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. "We had some of the state's most knowledgeable and experienced firefighters on scene and it was their assessment that taking up borough resources was not going to save the building."
The lack of water sources near the lodge and the narrow, winding road would have presented firefighters with a very difficult situation, Gamble said.
"Do you really want to put people at risk for something that's really not going to make a difference?" Gamble said.
Norm MacDonald, a fire management officer with the state's Division of Forestry, estimated it would have taken 12-15 trucks to battle the flames. The division's main mission is to fight wildfires out in the open and its crews aren't outfitted to enter burning buildings.
"We don't have the equipment or training to do an interior attack on an ongoing structural fire," MacDonald said. "Everybody wants to do something, but you have obligations and limited resources."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing