By MARY CALLAHAN & BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A two-alarm blaze that closed Highway 12 and brought scores of gawkers to downtown Sebastopol on Friday destroyed a large section of The Barlow, an old-time apple processing plant at the center of a 12-acre project that will serve as a hub for local wineries, food producers and artists.
The front half of the two-part metal frame building and mounds of bundled vintage clothing that filled the 10,000-square-foot warehouse burned for hours, despite the efforts of dozens of firefighters, sending a dark plume of smoke into the skies above downtown that was visible from Santa Rosa, seven miles away.
It's not clear to what extent the conflagration could delay renovation of the building, which eventually will serve as a second site for Community Market, a Santa Rosa-based non-profit organic food market.
The implications of losing what amounts to half of the vintage, corrugated structure intended to lend character and history to the $23.5 million project also was uncertain.
But Barney Aldridge, owner and developer of The Barlow, said he expected delays would be minimal, and he still hoped the market could be operating by November, about a month later than initially planned.
Renovation of the building had not yet begun. In fact, Aldridge said the improvement plan for Community Market was just being finalized, and he was still obtaining permits for that portion of the overall project.
No new construction on the site, which will include an upscale cluster of retail shops and production spaces, was affected.
Aldridge said he was just “relieved no one was hurt.”
“That's the important thing,” he said.
Assistant Sebastopol Fire Chief Mike Reeser and general contractor Ron Roysum, project superintendent, said 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 cavernous 20,000-square-foot warehouse.
Sparks quickly ignited flames, perhaps sneaking under a roll-up door leading into the southern-most section of warehouse, where a large volume of clothing was stored and sorted for sale at Aubergine Vintage Emporium and Cafe a few blocks away.
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 captain in his off-hours, said the clothing inside would have absorbed any moisture, leaving the air extremely dry and conducive to flames.
“It was very quick,” said Wootton, who hurriedly moved tools and fuel containers from the other half of the structure, though it ultimately was untouched.
Mickey Friedman, who was having breakfast across the highway, described seeing a huge, black plume of smoke “pouring out of nowhere,” while Andrew Poindexter, at work in the Sebastopol Cookie Company two blocks away, said even he noticed that “all of a sudden, everything outside just got dark.”
But the fire was so hot that even with multiple agencies working — including Sebastopol, Santa Rosa, Graton, Goldridge and Cal Fire — crews could only get close enough to aim huge, high-powered water canons at the blaze, even as the metal structure began to melt, sag and shift.