Firefighters battled the roaring flames from an aerial truck.
FRUITLAND TOWNSHIP - In a blaze of historic proportions, the 110-year-old main building of the Michillinda Lodge on the Lake Michigan shores was destroyed early Sunday morning, Dec. 2.
The response by firefighters was also enormous to the four alarm fire at the northern Muskegon County location. Fourteen fire departments from across Muskegon County brought 75 firefighters and 30 pieces of equipment to the scene of the 4:27 a.m. alarm. The Department of Natural Resources was called to suppress fires on the nearby Lake Michigan dunes, and departments from adjoining counties were put on standby in respond to other alarms during the battle.
Overall, firefighters were on the scene at 5207 Scenic Drive for 12 hours, although many of them left during the mop up work.
Management spokesman John Harrington of Hotel Investment Services Inc. said the blaze destroyed 18 guest rooms, a restaurant and outdoor deck, according to an early AP story. The Michillinda Lodge’s website says that families from Grand Rapids in Michigan, plus Illinois and Indiana “built simple, comfortable, two-story cottages” on the shore and named it for the three states in 1902. It later became the county’s only lodging and restaurant facility on Lake Michigan, drawing generations of families to stay for relaxing vacations.
There area several other cottages on the 22-acre site.
The restaurant has hosted banquets and receptions, and the lodge was a favorite spot for weddings.
The origin of the fire was still undetermined as of last Wednesday, but White Lake Fire Authority Chief Greg Holman, who was the officer in charge at the scene, said a work crew member who was staying at the lodge reported seeing flames near the floor of a guest room near a space heater.
Holman said Wednesday that the investigation of the blaze is continuing and cleanup of the site will not begin until it is completed. The Michigan State Police and the Muskegon Heights Fire Department chief have been brought in the assist with the investigation of the fire’s cause.
“There was a crew of five workers staying in the lodge that night,” Holman said. “They were doing maintenance at the resort.”
The fire chief said the initial alarm was delayed 15 minutes because the workers, who were awakened by an activated fire alarm, were trying to extinguish the fire, but, he added, that delay was not a factor in the destruction of the four-story lodge which was recently renovated. “They were only doing what comes natural to humans.”
Holman said firefighters first arrived on the scene 10 minutes after the 4:27 a.m. alarm, and initially, a crew of six rotated going in and assessing the damage.
The chief said the fire originated in a third story guest room, and firefighters soon realized it had “flashed into the ceiling and the floor above. The “balloon” construction of the building allowed the fire to rapidly climb inside the walls to the roof.
“We had the firefighters exit and went into a defensive operation.”
The 31-year-old Holman who was named chief this past year, said he had to make a decision to abandon the inside operation within seconds.
The all-out alarm was quickly sounded, and a water brigade was established with 18 tankers shutting water from three sources, dry hydrants at nearby Duck Lake and White Lake on Scenic Drive, and a hydrant in the nearby City of Whitehall.
Complicating the operation was a narrow drive to the lodge off of Scenic Drive which required firefighters to bring in tankers five at a time to fill portable water tanks. Trucks couldn’t pass each other.
The battle also included two aerial fire trucks, one from White Lake and one from Muskegon Township, which were used to protect two nearby cottages which suffered minor damage.
Holman said winds from the southwest at 20-25 mph complicated the effort to extinguish the fire, but they calmed down at daylight.
The chief said the blaze advanced to quickly that by the time he walked around the lodge from the lakeside, the flames had followed him to the roadside main entrance.
Holman said this was probably the largest fire in the White Lake area since 1961 when the Franklin House hotel burned in downtown Montague. “It is equally devastating to the community.”
“We had a lot of firsts with this fire,” Holman said.
1. It was the first four-alarm request by a fire department to Central Dispatch.
2. The accountability system which keeps track of the location of personnel was challenged.
3. A fire chief was assigned to the dispatch center to acquire fire fighting services outside the county.
Fire was personal
Holman said, for White Lake Fire Authority members, this fire was personal. “We’ve had our Christmas parties there (Michillinda Lodge).”
Holman said it was amazing that there were no fatalities or injuries among the crew members staying at the lodge or firefighters.
Owners of Michillinda Lodge were on the scene Sunday afternoon, and the management firm posted a statement on the website www.michilllindalodge.com.
“Sunday, December 2, 2012: Hotel Investment Services, Inc. is deeply saddened by the devastating fire that destroyed the main building of our Michillinda Lodge property early this morning. The hotel was closed for the season and we are grateful that no one was injured in this terrible tragedy.
“Michillinda Lodge is a beautiful and well-loved historic 110-year-old property and a favorite vacation spot for many. We appreciate the thoughts of support and prayers we have received from our loyal guests and ask you to pray for all who have strong ties to this property and community.
“Our Chief Operating Officer, Area Manager, and General Manager of the hotel are on site and assisting with investigation. We will release more information as facts become clear.”
Hotel Investment Services, Inc.
The local community responded to the fire quickly. Many people came to the fire scene to watch an iconic structure burn. Holman said they has some difficulty initially in keeping people back from the fire.
And, even that day offers of help were made.
Amy VanLoon, executive director of the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, said she heard about the fire through the online social network as people quickly made posts, including photos of the fire.
VanLoon said she contacted the owners were an offer of help, and one of the group, George Wixom of Grand Rapids, thanked VanLoon and the community for prayers and support.
VanLoon said three other area resorts offered to take lodge reservations until Michillinda resumes operations.
She said the biggest difficulty for Michillinda is dealing with 2013 weddings it has booked.
The chamber director said she told Wixom, “What can we do to get you through this.”
VanLoon said the lodge is important for drawing tourists to the area, and as a popular restaurant and employer for local restaurants.
Fruitland Township Supervisor Sam St. Amour, who chairs the White Lake Authority Board, applauded the efforts of all firefighters who responded to the Michillinda Lodge fire.
“I was impressed,” St. Amour commented on the firefighting operations. “Holman did a heck of a job for a 31-year-old. He was right on it.”
St. Amour said he was impressed with the coordination of the White Lake Fire Authority and other departments in the county.
The township supervisor said Thursday that he has not talked to the Michillinda Lodge owners about the lodge’s future. “Mr. Wixom has been my contact,” St. Amour added. He thinks the owners are letting the news of the lodge’s destruction settle in before making decisions about its future.
The supervisor said Michillinda Lodge is a legal, non-conforming use in the Lake Michigan shoreline zoning district, but St. Amour said the owners could rebuild the lodge on the same footprint without a zoning variance.
“If they have a plan, they will have to go to the Planning Commission.
“Hopefully the township can work with them to get it up and going as fast as possible.”