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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.

(See more photos)

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.

Two hours later, firefighters surrounded by strips of twisted metal peeled from the building by an excavator claw, were still dousing flaming bundles of charred apparel, a few splashes of red, pink and purple cloth still visible here and there.

Reeser said he expected crews to remain on the site until well into nighttime.

Water used to fight the blaze accumulated ankle deep across the property, meanwhile, raising a threat to the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, located across Morris Street from the blaze.

Reeser said some of the fouled water reached a storm drain leading into the sensitive wetland area, and he was forced to notify state Fish and Game officials and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

A vacuum truck was dispatched by the city Department of Public Works to remove anything that might have reached the Laguna, though it was not immediately clear if any did, Reeser said.

Workers used heavy machinery already on the site to form soil and gravel berms to hem in water spilling onto lower ground and into construction trenches from the main firefighting area.

At the peak, Reeser said, “We were probably dumping 2,000 gallons a minute” onto the fire.

It was advantageous, Aldridge said, arriving about two hours into the fire, as crews began pulling apart the metal walls of the burned structure, that regulations require contractors to have the site set up to contain any water generated during construction and that the project generally was “in construction mode.”

The clothing collected for resale at Aubergine, known for classic vintage apparel and headware, would be irreplaceable, however.

Aubergine only had use of the warehouse for another three months before moving out to make way for renovation, Aldridge said.

How the loss will affect its retail business was unclear, as employees declined comment and said the store owner was not available.

“We're all pretty devastated,” said a woman who answered the store phone Friday, “and none of us really want to talk about it.”

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 building to be built near Morris Street.

Concrete flood walls stood near the large metal framing of what eventually will house some operations for Kosta Browne Winery.

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.

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

Construction began in December and was slated 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, or 40,000 square feet, with barrel storage, wine making and office space.

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

The first move-in stage is set for August, with completion by the end of the year, he said.

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

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

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