Jay Richards stood by and watched earlier this week as the cornerstone of his life's work burned to the ground. First billowing smoke overtook his Maplelag Resort. Then deep orange and red flames — as bright as any autumn tree — engulfed the structure.

At first, Richards held out hope the crews from 11 area fire departments could salvage part of the building, which was the heart of the beloved ski resort near Callaway, Minn., about 20 miles north of Detroit Lakes.

"But it just kept going and going and going," said Richards, 52, who runs the resort with his wife, Jonell. "Probably the saddest part of the day was at sunset when a backhoe knocked the remaining tower over.

"Then you just break down. And the next day you come back and you see everything and it's like, what just happened? Am I in a dream?"

The lodge — once a three-story building filled with antique signs and kitschy memorabilia where employees served family-style meals in a cozy cafeteria — is now a pile of ash.

Fire crews, who were called to the resort just after 8:30 a.m. Monday, remained on scene into that evening, pulling water from the nearby lake to squelch the fire. On Tuesday, crews continuously turned over piles of rubble, extinguishing hot spots that remained. The state fire marshal's office is working to determine the cause of the fire.

"The fire crews did a great job. The wind kicked up on Monday night. It was a little sketchy there for a while," Richards said Thursday.

Although the fire didn't damage any of the multiple cabins used for lodging, the Richards plan to cancel reservations for the upcoming ski season. During a normal year, cross-country ski teams from across the state descend on the resort in December and, after the first of the year, reservations transition to families and small groups. The resort, which employs 33 people, also hosts weddings, retreats, conferences and language-learning camps.

Richards' parents, Jim and Mary, founded the resort nearly 50 years ago. The lodge burned down in 1999 after a boiler caught fire. The family rebuilt the lodge after the first fire but Jay Richards said he's unsure if they will rebuild again.

"We were there for that first fire and part of the rebuild and all the physical manual labor involved with that," Jay Richards said. "We have thought about [rebuilding] but the energy and the drive isn't like it was last time. Being in the hospitality industry for 30 years takes a lot. You're taking care of a couple hundred people and everything has to go right."

Former guests have shared support on social media — many describing Maplelag as a destination to disconnect from the world, enjoy nature and create memories with family and friends. A number of guests have returned year after year for decades. Many shared hopes the lodge will rise again.

"We have this Maplelag family and it's just thousands of people. A family that big — it's just a lot of grieving," Richards said. "You know your guests are grieving and, to me, that's almost the hardest part."