Lost Isle, once the Delta’s most popular party resort, suffered major damage from fire last week, in part because curiously passive firefighters stood by and let it burn.
This is not a Lost Isle eulogy, however. If it were I’d mumble a few words and be done with Lost Isle, which closed for upgrades in 2008 and never reopened.
Surprisingly, however, the owner says he still plans to rebuild, reopen and laissez le bon temps rouler. Adding that after 15 or so years of predicting he will soon reopen everyone just scoffs.
“At this point nobody believes me just because nothing has happened,” says Dave Wheeler. “I have no credibility.”
I believe Wheeler. But then I believed the Warren Commission.
According to Wheeler’s preliminary information, the fire started as a grass fire on Acker Island, site of the famously hedonistic tiki tavern accessible only by boat 15 miles west of Stockton.
Burning questions about response to fire
A private fire department, Holt Fire, and two island caretakers, fought the fire — until the Holt guys knocked off at 5 pm, Wheeler says. The next day, the fire flared anew. Firefighters returned, joined by a firefighting boat from San Joaquin County, but the fire spread to buildings.
The decision was made to let it burn.
Wheeler, who’s paid property taxes to San Joaquin County since he bought the island in 1996, and spent a fortune complying with county codes, expected a wee bit more effort.
“You would expect that there would be a fire department out there that would deal with these kinds of issues,” he says.
A Channel 13 reporter at the fire scene asked Capt. Ken Pearson of a private firefighting outfit called Holt Fire the obvious question: Um, shouldn’t you, like, be putting the fire out?
“Right now, there’s nothing really on the island,” Pearson shrugged.
Which is patently untrue. There were numerous structures on the island, hence the caretakers. Who were trying to save some boats when ordered to evacuate, so the boats burned too, Wheeler says.
As did a tiki bar, dance pavilion, and two barges, among other things. “All these structures were part of the future,” says Wheeler. “Now I have to go back to square one.”
Attempts to reach Holt Fire were unsuccessful.
A party place on the water
Wheeler, a San Diego venture capitalist, ran Lost Isle in the traditional manner: cascades of mai tais and beer lubricating wingdings and flings for boaters, plus live bands and luaus.
Though by Wheeler’s time some of the more colorful critters that once ranged the island were gone, the goats, peacocks, the monkey, and the donkey, Francis.
“The donkey used to walk in there and eat somebody’s hamburger off the table,” reminiscenced Lost Isle’s legendary bartender, Fill-’em Up Phil Champion, 79. “They’d say, ‘Phil! The donkey ate my hamburger!’”
After a 2008 killing, the Sheriff demanded security upgrades. Another agency demanded sewer upgrades. Wheeler closed, thinking he could kill two birds with one stone and do a major remodel, too.
Fate had other plans. Up to 40 (!) government agencies imposed torturous permit processes. Wheeler almost died from a heart infection. And, he says, his business partner tried to rip him off, leading to a court fight and tying up for years the capital he needed to expand and reopen.
Wheeler says he won the suit months ago and was finally moving forward.
Cue the fire.
“It broke my heart,” says Fill-’em-Up Phil.
The old rascal lives on Turner Cut in a colorfully cluttered houseboat – which incidentally should be preserved when Phil dies and exhibited at the county historical museum as a classic specimen of a river rat’s abode.
Phil regaled me with stories of uninhibited island revelry.
“Oh, boy. Crazy. Crazy. I saw some stuff I wouldn’t even tell ya,” Phil said.
There were wet t-shirt contests, below-decks spouse-swapping, and the general sobriety level of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday. Predictably, some authorities disapproved.
But Lost Isle was the Delta’s most popular resort for a reason.
People don’t fly thousands of miles to Cancun for the museums. People need to cut loose. To let off steam. To dance late into the night, to get drunk, to get laid. To free themselves at least temporarily from the soul-sucking demands of the workplace which in America triggered The Great Resignation.
Both Stockton and San Joaquin County have been incredibly obtuse about this. The conservative farm mentality thinks farming and the occasional charity event will do just fine, thank you.
So the young leave Stockton in droves. The stayers adjust to a life of dinner parties with friends and boujie white-wine fundraisers. Meanwhile, venues that should be hopping remain dark.
Then the same leaders who suppress the scene with red tape and excessive policing scratch their heads and wonder why Silicon Valley tech companies won’t move here.
Lost Isle thrived because, being 15 miles out in the Delta and accessible only by boat, it was largely beyond the reach of these bean counters. But ultimately, they got to Lost Isle, too. It’s what they do.
Even though many of them frequented Lost Isle. Superior Court judges, prosecutors, cops. I wish to God Fill-em’-Up Phil hadn’t sworn me to secrecy about the community pillars who did belly shots on the bar.
Phil did recount the time he got busted for serving alcohol to a minor. In court he was puzzled to see the prosecutor sidle up to the bench and whisper to the judge. The judge then summarily dismissed the fine, let Phil off with probation, and jovially ordered him to buy the prosecutor a drink the next time she visited Lost Isle.
Turns out, the prosecutor was a Lost Isle fan.
“I didn’t recognize her with her clothes on,” Phil said.
Plans for the future
The importance of fun aside, Lost Isle was a huge economic engine for the Delta. “It attracted people from all over California and indeed all over the U.S.,” says Bill Wells, executive director of the California Delta Chambers and Visitor’s Bureau.
Those people launched boats at Delta marinas, refueled at Delta gas docks, camped at Delta campgrounds, ate at Delta restaurants, bought beer and ice at Delta markets, etc.
When it closed, “I’m sure everybody lost business,” Wells says.
The only resort to benefit was Windmill Cove, which picked up the slack, and which runs a good scene.
Wheeler still believes Lost Isle can be bigger than ever. He seems determined to clean up the island, build a bigger resort, and reopen, eyeing 2024. Never mind the epic frustrations and expense he has suffered so far
“My wife thinks I’m an idiot,” he said.
The river rats approve, if Fill-’em-Up Phil is any indication.
“I hope I’m alive when Lost Isle reopens,” he said. “I really do.”
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.