MEDFORD — Fire ripped through an east Medford low-income housing complex Wednesday night, destroying one townhouse and displacing at least eight families, officials said.

MEDFORD — Fire ripped through an east Medford low-income housing complex Wednesday night, destroying one townhouse and displacing at least eight families, officials said.

Medford Fire Department investigators planned to work through the night to determine the cause of the blaze that damaged three Barnett Townhomes units.

The fire ignited at 8 p.m. and moved quickly through one two-story townhouse.

"When our engines arrived on scene, black smoke was visible in the sky and it wasn't long before we saw flames coming through the roof," Medford fire Battalion Chief Gordon Sletmoe said.

Firefighters and police worked quickly to evacuate the units adjacent to the burning townhouse.

Among those forced from their homes was 20-year-old Keri Deatherage, who clutched blankets and coats she snatched as flames chewed through the roof of the nearby townhouse.

Deatherage had stepped outside to speak to her mother when a frantic neighbor ran up to them saying the complex was on fire.

"I didn't even realize what was going on until I saw the flames," Deatherage said. "All I knew was that I had to get back inside my house and get my kids."

She bolted to her 4-year-old son's room and ordered him to leave the townhouse. She then grabbed her 17-month-old daughter and fled to the sidewalk across from the burning unit.

Deatherage didn't have time to put on shoes. She stood watching the firefighters scaling ladders to the complex's roof in her socks as the temperatures dipped into the low 30s.

"I never ran so fast in my life," Deatherage said.

The densely populated complex forced fire officials to call out a fifth alarm, which sent engines from Jackson County Fire Districts 3 and 5 as well as the Ashland Fire Department rushing to the scene. A Josephine County fire engine was put on stand-by in case the flames spread to more townhouses.

Witnesses said the windows of the engulfed apartment blew out, sending thick smoke throughout the complex.

Firefighters cut holes in the roof to ventilate the attic space above the burning townhouse. Just feet away the fire tore through the roof, opening a large hole through which flames shot toward the sky.

The 50 firefighters on scene attacked the complex from both sides. It took them an hour and 15 minutes to gain control of the fire, Sletmoe said.

In all, eight units were evacuated, Sletmoe said.

"We are working to get those families in contact with Red Cross officials to get them a place to stay tonight," Sletmoe said. "We don't know when they will be able to go back into their homes."

Two units on each side of the source received a "fair amount" of damage, Sletmoe said.

The apartment in which the fire appeared to start was destroyed.

Fire officials called in Pacific Power crews to shut off electricity to a large number of units. Sletmoe did not know when power would be restored.

Fire investigators began their inquiry into the source of the blaze immediately after the flames were doused.

"We are going to have to dig through the ashes to piece together what happened," Sletmoe said.

The throng of emergency vehicles forced the closure of Ellendale Drive, which leads to the complex. The road remained closed at 10 p.m.

Barnett Townhomes, which comprises 82 housing units, is owned by ACCESS Inc., which built the complex in 1995 to expand the options of low cost housing in Medford.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.