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Fire guts Russian River store, heart of Odd Fellows community

Tuesday night’s fire at the Odd Fellows Recreation Club along the Russian River destroyed a general store and burger cafe and also took out a piece of the nearly century-old resort community’s heart.

“There were a lot of people in tears,” Russian River fire Capt. Travis Wood said, describing many in the crowd of people who watched firefighters from at least five agencies battle the blaze, reported at about 9:30 p.m. “It’s sad for a lot of residents.”

Longtime club member Jim Niskanen called the rustic store the “symbolic image for the park,” with its redwood siding, log poles and large, carved letters “OFRC” across the front.

“It was kind of the centerpiece for summer nights and summer events … from cakewalks to dances,” Niskanen said. “That did create some obvious tears last night and today, as people woke up to see it in the daylight.”

On Wednesday, Russian River fire officials worked in the remains, now little more than a charred frame. They were looking for evidence of what started the fire. The cause remained under investigation late Wednesday afternoon.

The Odd Fellows Recreation Club, formed in 1928, sits on the south bank of the river between Forestville and Guerneville. Residents told firefighters they believed the burned building had been built in the 1930s.

The store and cafe had sat amid a cluster of community buildings located above the park’s large beach. Threatened by the fire but not damaged were a hall and outdoor theater, where dances and talent shows have been held over the years, as well as an arbor and outdoor barbecue and picnic area.

Firefighters arriving on scene Tuesday found flames shooting out of the back of the single-story commercial building.

Initial attempts were made to fight the fire from inside in an attempt to save some of the building. But when flames raced through the attic and the roof began to collapse, the effort moved outside and firefighters worked defensively to stop the blaze from spreading to nearby structures, Wood said.

The store was closed when the fire started, as it typically would be on a Monday night. The park was busy with summer visitors and residents and the sound of sirens, arriving fire engines and the roar of the flames brought out many people who watched as the store become engulfed in a wall of flames that rose high into the sky.

Residents were grateful no one was injured and that the other buildings were saved.

“It was really remarkable, how the fire crews were able to contain it,” Niskanen said.

Details, including the financial loss from the fire, remain under calculation.

The private Odd Fellows park includes about 200 cabin sites on about 325 acres, accessed through a gate. It was started by Odd Fellows Lodge members who purchased a former sawmill property from the Fairfax Lumber Co. and established the river retreat.

Many families at the park have been members for decades, visiting their cabins or campsites for summer getaways and family reunions. The redwood-shaded property is home to numerous year-round residents as well.

Niskanen, a Modesto resident and president of the club’s board of directors, said he has been going to the river retreat for about 50 years. He said it was likely the store would be rebuilt.

“Life goes on. The park goes on,” he said. “We’re playing bingo tonight in the clubhouse.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com or Twitter@rossmannreport.

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