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 &amp; 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.