A three-alarm fire ripped through a vacant cold-storage building just outside of Talent on Monday afternoon, sending a 30-foot fountain of flames skyward and a thick black plume of smoke that at times cloaked parts of town.
Smoke from the 2:13 p.m. fire at the corner of Suncrest Road and South Pacific Highway could be seen clearly in Medford and even smelled in Ashland while a consortium of firefighters spent hours dousing flames that destroyed part of the former Associated Fruit storage facility.
The wood-framed and metal-sided part of the building was destroyed, and the dense, pulsating clouds of black smoke roaring from the structure were likely caused by the burning of tar or shingle roofing, Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Chief Dan Marshall said.
Clouds of smoke billowed into shifting winds, burning some adjacent grass and occasionally raining embers on nearby homes and businesses — including a 76 gas station whose pumps were shut down most of the afternoon. Traffic also was blocked on South Pacific Highway for more than an hour and access into Suncrest Road was limited into the evening Monday.
Early assessments showed the fire's likely source was inside and near the building's southern end, Marshall said.
"To our knowledge, no one was in or around the building when the fire started," Marshall said. "That was our No. 1 concern, that there might be a maintenance guy (inside)."
The shuttered facility was the southern neighbor to the fire district's headquarters just outside the city of Talent, but that didn't help firefighters get a quick attack on the blaze.
The engine and crew assigned to the station were on a medical call in downtown Talent when passers-by ran into the station to report the building next door was on fire, Marshall said.
With no engine inside, Marshall ran over to the building, saw the south side engulfed in flames and quickly called out a second alarm, he said.
"Twenty-five percent of that part of the building was totally involved when I got there," Marshall said. "We knew we had a lot of smoke and fire and very little resources initially."
District 5 firefighters stationed in Phoenix were first to reach the scene, followed by engines from Medford, Ashland, Jacksonville and others until 55 firefighters with 13 engines descended upon the blaze, Marshall said.
Firefighters were initially concerned the building contained stored tanks of an ammonia-based refrigerant used in cold-storage facilities, triggering fears of potential for an explosion or the release of ammonia that could sicken people, Marshall said.
Amid the confusion of the initial assault on the flames, firefighters said they first suspected the potential for enough ammonia in the facility to trigger an evacuation for up to a mile around the fire, based on hazardous materials protocols. A hazmat team was called in.
But that risk was later lowered when firefighters expected only a small amount of refrigerant. At that time, they considered evacuating a perimeter of about 500 feet, Marshall said. But it turned out that no refrigerant was present and no evacuations were ordered, he said.
As fire crews doused smoldering timbers, Marshall said there was no initial indication that the fire was suspicious. However, because of the size and nature of the fire, it will be investigated by a multi-agency team that will include the Oregon State Police and the State Fire Marshal's Office as well as Fire District 5 and Ashland Fire & Rescue, Marshall said.
The destroyed part of the building, estimated at 2,500 square feet, was attached to a larger concrete-walled facility that also suffered damage from flames and smoke, Marshall said. No damage cost estimate was available Monday.
Jane Babbitt said she was heading to work at the nearby Jackson County Animal Control shelter when she first noticed hints of the fire while still in Ashland.
"I smelled it at my house in the Railroad District," Babbitt said.
She worried the shelter was on fire, then drove up South Pacific Highway as the building burned and winds blew smoke away from the highway.
"It just looked frightening," she said.
The facility originally was owned by Associated Fruit but was deeded to South Valley Bank & Trust in 2011 when the company fell on hard times, records show. That bank is now part of Washington Federal.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.