It was a rough weekend for Silverton.
A fire Saturday night destroyed a historic building on Greene Street, taking firefighters nearly 17 hours to douse and prevent it from spreading to adjacent buildings.
But that was only the beginning of the small mountain town’s problems.
The fire also sparked a power outage across the entire town until Sunday morning and knocked out cellphone service and internet until it was restored Monday morning.
And, the fire required so much water to fight, Silverton residents are now being asked to voluntarily conserve water until storage tanks can refill.
“This is a big deal,” said DeAnne Gallegos, spokeswoman for San Juan County.
Around 10 p.m. Saturday, patrons at the Golden Block Brewery spotted the fire across the street at the Great Divide Co., a gift and souvenir store at 1248 Greene St. But as the late-night revelers went to call 911 on their cellphones, they couldn’t – there was no service.
Fortunately, the Golden Block Brewery had a landline, Gallegos said, and 911 was called.
Gilbert Archuleta, chief of Silverton-San Juan County Fire and Rescue Authority, said a crew of about 16 firefighters and two trucks arrived on scene.
“We thought we had it under control,” he said. “But then it jumped up into the ceilings and burned through the roof.”
Durango Fire Protection District was called for backup. Archuleta said crews fought the fire through the night, with temperatures dipping down around 10 below. Around 6 a.m. Sunday, the fire was under control and no longer posed a threat of spreading into adjacent buildings.
But Silverton’s fire crews continued to put out hot spots until around 4 p.m. Sunday.
The Great Divide Co. is likely a complete loss, Archuleta said. The adjacent buildings – the Teller House Hotel and Outdoor World Sporting Goods – sustained smoke damage. No one was injured in the blaze.
“With everyone pitching in, we were able to contain it to one building on Greene Street,” Archuleta said. “It was a big deal that it didn’t spread.”
The fire, though, was only starting to wreak havoc on the community of about 400 winter residents, who live in relative isolation about 50 miles north of Durango.
The blaze damaged a power line that runs along the alley behind the Great Divide Co., knocking out power for the entire town from Saturday night until 4 a.m. Sunday, with residents having to endure below-zero temperatures.
The flames wrecked CenturyLink’s line that also runs along the alley. And because all other providers, like Verizon and Forethought, rely on and use CenturyLink’s infrastructure, the entire town’s internet and cellphone service was knocked out.
“We only had landlines,” Gallegos said.
Town officials set up an emergency staging area at the Visitor Center, where a landline phone and modem internet system could be used to communicate to residents and to the outside world. Gallegos said she wrote notices to keep residents updated and delivered them door to door.
All the while, town officials had no idea when CenturyLink representatives would show up to fix the line. Gallegos said the entire incident exposed how vulnerable the town is.
“It’s critical for our way of life – it eliminates 911 and can knock out life-alert systems people are on,” she said. “This is definitely a conversation we have to have with people with more authority (at CenturyLink). These small rural communities are susceptible and vulnerable.”
A CenturyLink spokesman said Monday the company plans to meet with town officials in early 2020 to talk about issues with infrastructure when failures occur.
Gallegos, however, said a CenturyLink staff member showed up early Monday from Denver, and internet and cellphone service was restored around 4:45 a.m.
“Yes, we had landlines, and thankfully, we knew who had them,” she said. “But what keeps rising to the top is our relationship with CenturyLink and understanding how reliable we are on that one service provider. That’s something that really needs to be discussed.”
John Sites, Silverton’s director of Public Works, said it took an estimated 500,000 gallons of water to fight the fire. And because the town’s entire storage capacity for water is 800,000 gallons, he said he would have enacted mandatory restrictions Sunday.
“But there was no way to get the word out,” Sites said.
Instead, town officials waited it out, and the storage tanks started to fill back up. The town is asking residents to voluntarily conserve water until the tanks are full, which should be in about two days.
“But it’s also important to say over the holidays we’re busier with more people using water in town, about one-third as much as we usually use,” Sites said.
The cause of the fire is still unknown. Archuleta said foul play is not suspected, and fire crews will continue to search the scene for clues. But the burden for a true investigation, he said, is up to the Great Divide Co.’s insurer.
“It really depends on how insurance wants to handle it,” he said.
Attempts to reach the owners of the Great Divide Co. were unsuccessful Monday morning. The store’s Facebook page says it has been family owned and operated for 30 years.
“Thank you all so much for the support of The Great Divide,” the store posted Sunday. “We are all hanging in and doing the best we can. We are thankful for this wonderful community and so thankful for the skilled firefighters who worked through the freezing night to fight this fire. We are overwhelmed by the love and support.”