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A two-alarm blaze destroyed a large section of The Barlow, a decades-old former apple-processing plant at the center of a planned 12-acre Sebastopol hub for wineries, food producers and artists.

The front half of the 20,000-square-foot metal frame building and bundled vintage clothing that was stored there burned for hours, sending a dark plume of smoke into the sky that was visible from Santa Rosa, seven miles away.

The corrugated metal structure, site of the former Barlow Apple Factory, was planned as a second site for the Community Market, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit organic food market. It would be a centerpiece of the $23.5 million plan to remake the warehouse property off Morris Street and Highway 12 into an upscale cluster of retail shops and production and office spaces.

Despite the fire damage, Barney Aldridge, owner and developer of The Barlow, said he expected delays would be minimal in completing the remodel and he still hoped the market could be operating by November, about a month later than planned.

Renovation of the building had not yet begun and new construction on the rest of the site was unaffected, he said.

Aldridge said he was just "relieved no one was hurt."

The 9:17 a.m. fire started when a construction worker was using a cutting torch to trim rebar in a covered breezeway at the center of the warehouse, said Assistant Sebastopol Fire Chief Mike Reeser and Ron Roysum, project superintendent.

In the southernmost section of the warehouse, clothing was ignited that was being sorted in preparation for selling at Aubergine Vintage Emporium and Cafe south of downtown.

Chuck Wootton, a subcontractor with Chico-based Slater & Son Concrete who was working in the other half of the structure with its roll-up door open, said he quickly noticed flames coming out from under the closed door opposite and "yelled 'Fire'."

Roysum, a Hopland Fire District captain in his off hours, said the clothing inside would have absorbed any moisture, leaving the air extremely dry and vulnerable to flames.

"It was very quick," said Wootton, who hurriedly moved tools and fuel containers from the other half of the structure, although it ultimately was untouched.

Mickey Friedman, who was having breakfast across Highway 12, described seeing a huge black plume of smoke "pouring out of nowhere."

Andrew Poindexter, at work in the Sebastopol Cookie Company two blocks away, said that "all of a sudden, everything outside just got dark."

The fire was so hot that even with firefighters from Santa Rosa, Graton, Gold Ridge and Cal Fire helping, crews could only get close enough to aim high-powered water cannons at the blaze while the metal structure began to melt, sag and shift.

Two hours later, firefighters surrounded by strips of twisted metal peeled from the building by an excavator claw still were dousing flaming bundles of charred apparel.

Water used to fight the blaze accumulated ankle deep across the property, which is near the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Some of the fouled water reached a storm drain leading into the sensitive wetland area, and a vacuum truck was dispatched by the city to remove water that might have reached the Laguna. It was not immediately clear if any did, Reeser said.

The clothing collected for resale at Aubergine, known for classic vintage apparel and headwear, was a total loss. The store only had use of the warehouse for three more months before moving out to make way for renovation, Aldridge said.

Melissa Minton, general manager of Community Market's Santa Rosa store, said she was going over plans for the new Sebastopol store with an architect when the news broke.

"I wasn't really thinking a metal building could go up so fast," she said.

The store has budgeted $2 million for remodeling the space in preparation for expanding into west Sonoma County, a well-known market for organic food.

Anticipated annual sales could top $9 million, double the amount at the Santa Rosa store on Mendocino Avenue, Minton said.

Sebastopol officials voiced strong support for going forward with the Barlow project, which was widely supported for its proposed revitalization of a former warehouse block.

"The city certainly stands ready to help out," said Larry McGlaughlin, interim city manager and city attorney.

City leaders said they would not be looking to "micromanage" minor changes to the project as a result of the fire, but would want to provide input on any significant ones.

"With any new physical components that are radically different than what was proposed, in theory the city would want to take a look at that," Mayor Guy Wilson said.

Despite the damage to the cannery building, crews continued working in a few corners of the huge construction site Friday, where newly poured concrete marked the footings of a new structure to be built near Morris Street.

The Barlow project is designed to connect customers not only with products and the people who make them, but also with the production itself. In addition to Community Market, anchor tenants include Kosta Browne Winery, Guayaki Yerba Mate and Taylor Maid Farms coffee.

The overall project eventually will include a park, space for the Sebastopol Farmers Market, an extension of McKinley Street and a cluster of upscale retailers.

Construction began in December and was slated last year to be completed in July or August.

Tony Lombardi, director of brand management and public relations at Kosta Browne Winery, said the company's future space — on the north end of the complex — did not appear to be affected by the blaze. The winery plans to occupy about a fourth of the project site, using it for barrel storage, winemaking and office space.

Lombardi said construction was still in the early stage with the foundation, stem walls and beams just starting to go up.

Aldridge said the mixed-use project was devised in the face of opposition from Sebastopol residents to condominiums he initially had envisioned, but said his critics were right, in the end.

"I think it turned out way better," he said. "I think the people were right."

You can reach Staff Writers Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com and Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.