Fire decimates Historic Windsor Mill just months from complete renovation
More than a century of history on the cusp of a comeback is gone, consumed by fire in the dead of night in downtown Windsor, Colo.
The Historic Windsor Mill, built in 1899 and set for rebirth nine years after being devastated by a large tornado, was destroyed by fire early in the morning on Aug 6.
No injuries were reported, and an investigation into the cause is ongoing.
Neighbors — both new and old — in this growing northern Colorado town of 22,000 woke up that morning to what many described as a gut punch.
It started before 2 a.m., with flames appearing to reach 50 feet, according to images provided by Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue. Smaller flames continued to lap at the charred debris through mid-morning Sunday, smoldering and filling downtown Windsor with smoke while residents spoke in hushed tones of both history and future lost.
“We were so excited, because the people who bought it had great ideas and great vision,” said Sunny Ranieri, owner of Vacations in Paradise in downtown Windsor. “Now it feels like it’s back to square one.”
Firefighters were called at 1:49 a.m. on Aug. 6, when the fire was already out of control. They used mechanical ladders to fight the flames from above, as footing in the now-collapsed construction site was tenuous. Windsor-Severance Fire Department Chief Herb Brady said crews were likely to battle hot spots well into the next day.
In addition to Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue personnel, the following organizations assisted with the fire: Front Range Fire Rescue, Loveland Fire Rescue, Poudre Fire Authority, Eaton Fire Rescue, Berthoud Fire, UC Health EMS, Weld County Sheriff, Weld County Communications, Windsor Police Department, Windsor Public Works and Xcel Energy.
FINDING THE CAUSE
Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, were on scene Sunday morning and expected to spend the next several days piecing together the cause of the fire.
Lisa Meiman, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said a team of certified fire investigators called the National Response Team would be on scene starting on Aug. 8. That team, Meiman said, likely would spend several days in Windsor.
“We typically go out whenever it’s a large scene, like the one we have here,” Meiman said.
The team cannot go into the site while there are active hotspots, and Meiman stressed the complexities related to the multi-story structure mean the investigation likely will take several days. Investigators will conduct interviews, review evidence, including security camera footage — if available — and then issue its report, likely in September.
There are few certainties now, save for this: The fire is the largest and most impactful in modern history for Windsor. And it comes just months before renovations were to be completed on a project that could have changed the face of Windsor’s downtown.
Developer Blue Ocean Inc. had big plans for the five-story mill including a brewery and community event space. The $9.2 million project was bolstered by a $3.7 million development incentive package from the town.
Steve Schroyer, director of real estate for Blue Ocean, said his group is assessing the situation, determining the next steps. Schroyer expressed gratitude for the first responders, as well as residents and town leaders for their support.
“We know how much it means to everybody in the town,” Schroyer said. “It’s a 100-year-old icon. It’s been through a lot. We are just disappointed and sad. It was turning out fantastic.”
The businesses slated to go into the building had not yet been announced, though two press conferences were scheduled and later canceled in the past month.
Now developers and the town just will have to wait and hope, Windsor Mayor Kristie Melendez said.
Whether residents remembered the charming structure before the tornado decimated it or recall the mill’s hey-day as a destination for Weld County agriculture, the excitement surrounding its revival was palpable.
“We had so many folks excited about the direction we had taken for that,” Melendez said
Count Kathleen Claus as one of those folks. Living in Windsor her entire life, Claus is well aware of the mill’s history, including its place on the National Historic Registry since 1998.
Claus had family who worked at the mill in the 1970s and said seeing it come back to life was exciting.
“It was like, ‘Finally, something’s getting done with the old mill,’” Claus said.
Ken Brunner, who’s dad, Henry Brunner, was a co-owner of the Windsor Mill in the mid-1960s to late 1970s, likewise was looking forward to the mill’s comeback.
“It’s a landmark of Windsor,” Brunner said.
Even as a steady drizzle soaked downtown, residents stood behind caution tape, looking at the heap of debris as firefighters and other emergency personnel strode around the scene.
Parents brought their children, ensuring they thanked firefighters and explaining to them both the history of the building and the science behind the fire. One pointed to debris strewn several blocks to the north of the old mill and told two boys about wind patterns.
That, indeed, was the case. Lightweight insulation from the new construction carried an eighth of a mile to the east, landing on roofs, including Napa Auto Parts. Although explosions were reported to the fire department, it’s just as likely the lightweight material carried in the wind, particularly after the structure collapsed, Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Bess said.
Officials still were assessing damage to surrounding structures on Aug. 6, finding some melted siding on at least one nearby structure.
While firefighters battled the fire, an Xcel crew worked to cut off gas to the property, and all of downtown was closed to through traffic from 7th to 1st streets along Windsor’s Main Street (Colo. 392). The road was reopened by 2:30 p.m.
But traffic-related inconvenience was the least of Windsor residents’ worries, particularly those who found a way to park and walk to the scene. Many found out through texts or phone calls that woke them early Sunday morning. Mayor Melendez spoke for many.
“What horrible news we all woke up to this morning,” she said.
To read more about the history of the Windsor Mill, go to http://www.greeleytribune.com/news/local/windsor-mills-history-adds-to-loss-residents-feel-after-sunday-fire/ ❖