Christmas fire

Helenville Fire Chief Roy Madison, left, discusses damages to the property with a WE Energies employee as business center owner Steve Lewis approaches.

Steve Lewis’ business, Winter Woods, was designed to bring joy to the holiday season and year round.

Ironically, it was on Christmas Day that a fire destroyed his Town of Jefferson business site, causing over an estimated $1 million in damages. He was thankful the fire happened on the holiday so no one was hurt.

Lewis started the company in 1976 in northern Wisconsin as a Christmas wreath manufacturer, which has now grown into a wholesale distributor of many natural goods including scented pine cones, fireplace products and fireside “essentials.” Lewis’ business is headquartered in Glidden, but Lewis also owns a number of business centers, including the Jefferson Area Business Center and the Highway D Business Development Center, which housed some of the Winter Woods operations and products.

Lewis’ products, along with half of his Highway D business development center building just south of Highway 18 near Helenville, were engulfed by flames as an early morning fire broke out throughout the facility Christmas Day. The charred remains of Christmas wreaths and pine cones were spread throughout the burned business center as Lewis and members of the local fire community assessed the damage of the fire Thursday.

“It’s a terrible thing that happened,” Lewis said. “We’re thankful that it was during the holidays so nobody was hurt. We’re also thankful to the firefighters and emergency responders who had their holidays interrupted to help us.”

Throughout the day Thursday, Lewis was attempting to get things back to as normal as possible while helping aid in the Helenville Fire Department’s investigation of the blaze.

Helenville Fire Chief Roy Madison and Jefferson Fire Chief Ron Wegner were on the scene conducting a preliminary investigation of the burn. According to Madison, the origin of the fire is still undetermined at this point.

“(The cause) is still under investigation,” Madison said. “Right now we’re doing preliminary stuff. We will check with people with more knowledge and experience with these things and go from there. We will use this as a teaching tool.”

Although no official number was given, Madison estimated the damages to total at least $1 million.

Fire damage and water damage was significant. Pieces of insulation hung low from the ceiling dripping water from above, charred pine cones were spread sporadically across the warehouse floor and a large pool of water sat in the middle of the space hovering over the dark floor beneath.

Things were slowly being looked at and turned back on for the buildings 10 tenants Thursday, according to Lewis, as units from WE Energies and a number of construction and engineering companies arrived to the building throughout the day.

It’s not known how many tenants were affected by the fire, but Lewis, who bought the space to be an “incubator” for small businesses, hopes to be able to provide those in need as much as they can.

“We hope the tenants can relocate,” Lewis said. “We will try to accommodate them any way we can.”

One tenant, Klaus Wieder of Helenville, owned a CBD oil business housed in the building. While walking through the wreckage with his brother Carl Wieder and Carl’s wife Colleen, Klaus found it difficult to even picture what the building once looked like.

“It’s so hard to try to figure out where everything was,” Klaus said as he walked through the large, blackened building.

For Klaus, it’s going to be a difficult road for him to be able to build his business back from the ashes.

“Devastating. I lost everything,” Klaus said. “Insurance probably won’t be able to cover it. You can’t put a price tag on it. I lost everything.”

Even through his difficulties, Klaus remained positive, telling Madison, “Life goes on. Thankfully nobody’s hurt.”

Although the damage was significant, it could have been much worse.

Thanks to a firewall bisecting the front half from the back half of the building, most of the businesses housed in the back were spared from the blaze. This was welcomed news to Lewis.

“It’s great,” Lewis said of the wall. “(You) definitely need a fire wall if you have small businesses....We were really fortunate to have the firewall to protect the building.”

Madison did not have an official number of how many departments aided during the fire, nor how much equipment or water was used, but Lewis said at least seven nearby towns came to help. Lewis expressed his appreciation for all of those who helped during the incident.

Things won’t be the same for the business center. Throughout the day, cars rolled slowly by with drivers gawking at the twisted and charred metal and orange security fence that now adorned the front of the building.

Winter Woods will still try to bring good cheer to Wisconsin during the holiday season, but Lewis hopes his business will not have to face another Christmas like this.

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