Hardester’s Market in Middletown gutted by fire

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Hardester’s Market in Middletown survived 2015’s devastating Lake County fires, but fell victim Monday afternoon to one that destroyed the building and its contents.

A Cal Fire firefighter suffered burns and was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center as 50 firefighters with agencies from across Lake County plus Cal Fire and Calistoga fought the blaze. The cause of the fire remained unknown late Monday as the owners, Ross Hardester and his brother Grant, began dealing with the future of their family business, long considered a hub of the community.

“We’re coming up on our 75th anniversary this summer and the town parade is coming in a couple of weeks. We were going to have a float in the parade,” said Ross Hardester, 47, as the market building near downtown Middletown was still burning.

“We’re definitely coming back, but it’s going to take time,” he said. “The community is going to have to support us, and be patient with us. Everybody in town has been through this with their own houses.”

When the Valley Fire tore through Middletown in 2015, Hardester’s Market somehow survived and became a rallying place for residents after the flames were finally subdued.

Hardester’s is not only a Middletown icon; it’s also a major employer, with some 100 people working there. There are also locations in Cobb Mountain and Hidden Valley Lake that employ 50 people.

“We’re mainly worrying about employees, but we’re glad everyone got out safely. That’s our concern. We’re surrounded by people who lost their homes here in the Valley Fire.”

Customers who were shopping at the store in the 21000 block of Calistoga Road when the broke out shortly after 2 p.m. were able to get out safely, said Monica Rosenthal of Middletown, who left her shopping basket behind and followed the others out.

“I was in the store when the alarm sounded,” said Rosenthal, 58, who has been shopping at Hardester’s for the past 25 years. Once outside, she could see the flames spread rapidly.

“The back of the store was on fire, and there was a ton of black smoke coming out from the back of the building,” she said.

Hardester’s is a focal point and social center for the town, said Rosenthal, who owns and operates Rosenthal Vineyards in Middletown with her husband David.

“The Hardesters and their store are the heart and soul of this community,” Rosenthal said. “This is a disaster for our community and the employees that work there.”

As crews continued to battle the blaze Monday, officials worked to assess the destruction.

“The cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation,” said Will Powers, Cal Fire public information officer in St. Helena. “With the extent of the damage, it’d be difficult to determine right now. My understanding is that the building is destroyed.”

The building was still standing, but nothing much was left inside, Ross Hardester said. “Pretty much everything’s burned,” he said.

The CHP released an incident report late Monday detailing how CHP Officer Efrain Cortez was in Hardester’s ordering a sandwich when the fire alarm sounded. According to the report, while he shut down traffic on Washington Street, Cortez saw a Cal Fire firefighter partially engulfed in flames. With the help of a second firefighter, they pulled the injured firefighter to safety. Cortez suffered first-degree burns to his right hand and smoke inhalation. He was treated and released from a Clearlake hospital.

The name of the injured firefighter who was hospitalized was not released.

Officials said the fire was 85 percent contained by about 9 p.m.

The Hardester family goes back five generations in Lake County. Hardester’s has been serving Lake County since 1943.

The Middletown store, known for its bakery and deli, also includes a lumber and rental yard.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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