Historic St. Augustine business district rocked by early morning fires

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The fires in St. Augustine before dawn Monday not only created a long day for fire investigators, but for area business owners as well.

Many store owners and employees heard about the fires and rushed to Cordova Street before the sun came up Monday to see if their buildings were in danger.

Lisa Dallaire and Laura Highsmith own a newly opened coffee and dessert shop named The Chocolate Turtle next door to one of the historic buildings that burned. Police now believe the fire that destroyed the building was set by an arsonist.  

The women say the heat was so intense their electrical meter was destroyed, some windows cracked and the roof is charred.

With no power, the women had to rush to move their refrigerated desserts out in order to not lose any of their products.  They also estimate they lost a few thousand dollars in revenue because they were not able to open for the day.

"Every day counts with money coming ... just to make sure that you can support the finances in your bank account and to make sure you can run it properly," said Highsmith. "So the blessing is that this was on a Monday, which for down here, is a little bit of a quieter day."

It was a similar story two doors down Cordova Street at Scarlett O'Hara's.  They were far enough from the fires the building wasn't damaged, but employees said the road closures have made it tough for tourists to find them.

"We are a bit off here today," said beverage manager Thomas Brown. "As long as they have the roads blocked off, we will not be to where we should be."

But at High Tide Gallery it was a much different story, where owner Aimee Wiles-Banion said the fire has increased foot traffic at her store due to curious tourists and locals alike.

"I'm actually having a really good business day today and people have been real supportive, wanting to find out what happened last night," Wiles-Banion said. "They saw it on the news. We're just telling them. We're so thankful nobody was in that house or was injured."

Back at The Chocolate Turtle, instead of serving customers, co-owners Dallaire and Highsmith made sure the fire crews working by their store stayed hydrated and well fed.  Some firefighters and investigators even took breaks inside the air-conditioned store to get some relief from the heat.

The business owners are also trying to help authorities find the person or group responsible for taking a bite out of their bottom line.

"It's just wrong; altogether wrong. And I know what goes around comes around, so I know that they're going to catch them," said Dallaire.