Carlette “Charlie” Vernlund spent more than $20,000 over the winter to put a new roof on her 1890s building, add a fresh coat of paint inside and stock up on artwork, ceramics and home decor for the summer.
On Tuesday morning, as the sun rose over Alexandria, Minn., she watched it all go up in smoke.
“I have to go to the bank and find a way to pay my employees for the week,” said Vernlund, owner of Charlie’s Bazaar. “My checkbook was in there.”
A major fire tore through downtown Alexandria on Tuesday, destroying four historic buildings and forcing the evacuation of about two dozen residents who lived above stores.
About 120 firefighters from Alexandria and surrounding communities were on the scene, said Sarah Stadtherr, a city spokeswoman.
The fire was reported about 4:30 a.m. Emergency crews responded and evacuated the residents, who lived on the second floors of the buildings. No deaths or injuries have been reported, according to Stadtherr.
“All these buildings have tenants above. They are all out and safe, but everything they have is completely destroyed,” said Amy Lesnar, owner of the Creative Touch Boutique, a clothing and gift shop. “They were literally woken up and evacuated.”
The American Red Cross was on the scene to assist the displaced residents.
Firefighters demolished the four buildings involved in the fire in an effort to stop the spread of the blaze. RM Tattoo, Raapers Eatery & Ale, Charlie’s Bazaar and Little Darlings Children’s Boutique, all in the 500 block of Broadway, fell victim to backhoes.
“These buildings are so old,” Lesnar said. “It’s rich history in downtown. They’ve been theaters, they’ve been everything.”
The Runestone Museum, located three to four blocks from the fire, was not affected by the blaze.
Pam Botker is co-owner of Creative Touch and president of the city’s Downtown Merchants Association. She said her business and others not directly affected by the fire have suffered significant smoke damage.
“We have to gut our store and rebuild,” Botker said. “We’ll all help each other out. We’ve been talking and whatever we have to do to rebuild, we’ll do that.”
Fire investigators are still attempting to pinpoint the cause and starting point of the fire.
Located in one of Minnesota’s lake areas about 140 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, Alexandria is an important regional shopping destination, and merchants also rely heavily on seasonal trade.
“Our first goal is to meet with the business owners and let them know that the city and staff are here to support whatever their needs are,” Stadtherr said. “As we watched and cried, we said we can foresee this being rebuilt and going forward into the future.”
Stadtherr added that city firefighters, for the first time, used a drone with thermal imaging, allowing them to locate hot spots and direct their hoses more effectively.
Vernlund has owned Charlie’s Bazaar for 20 years. In its life, the historic building had housed a shoe store, a drugstore and several other businesses.
“We’ll be meeting with our insurance guy tomorrow, and we’ll know more about what the possibilities are,” she said. “It’s kind of shocking, and I guess all of us are in a little bit of shock.
“But God has his plans for us.”