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Ashland distillery hit hard by explosion, fire

Alchemical Solutions had one lucky still operator working Friday inside its Ashland distillery when a violent explosion blew the garage door off its warehouse and sent flames shooting under a door the employee had just closed behind him, the owner said.

The organic distillery and the majority of its specialty equipment were gutted in the inferno fed by alcohol and natural gas, Alchemical Solutions owner Aaren Glover said.

The company, which produces bulk pure spirit alcohol for tinctures, perfumes and drinks, among other products, leases the 12,000-square-foot warehouse along with Dagoba Organic Chocolate, which stores raw materials in a section of the warehouse opposite Alchemical's operation, Ashland Fire & Rescue spokesman Chris Chambers said.

No one was injured during the incident, he said.

Large stores of raw cacao, sugar and other materials owned by the chocolate manufacturer were ruined from smoke damage and a lack of electricity for cooling during the blaze, he said.

Glover, who has only begun to estimate the cost of the damage, said it could total anywhere from $1.5 million to $2 million. Both the business and the landowner, Capstone Asset Management Corp., have insurance.

"I think it could have been a gas leak "… alcohol doesn't explode," Glover said. "Everything in there is explosion-proof. We've been doing the same process for nine years "… nothing unique about today."

Glover's employee, whom he wished to keep anonymous, had just started the morning's first batch, "a few-hundred-gallon re-still," of 150-proof spirits, Glover said.

"He started it and walked into the office. "… He felt the 'boom!' and saw flames shoot under the door back to the warehouse," Glover said. "He was seconds away from being in that."

The rest of about 300 gallons of high-proof alcohol Glover has on hand was locked away in fireproof containers and did not contribute to the fire, Chambers said. A 32,000-pound heap of organic corn grain in the distillery did burn and go to waste in the flames.

The blaze sent a towering black column of smoke a few hundred feet into the air south of Ashland.

Ashland Fire & Rescue Capt. Matt Freiheit said firefighters were forced to knock down most of the blaze before being able to attack one portion of the fire fueled by a gas leak.

Residents in neighborhoods on the south side of Tolman Creek Road were without gas as Avista workers were forced to shut off lines farther away from the valve at the distillery, which sits beneath where gas-fed flames poured out the building's windows.

The gas was turned off at about 1 p.m., Freiheit said.

Valerie Muroki, who is retired and lives on Tolman Creek Road near the distillery, said smoke from the fire gave her watery eyes and a headache like no grass or forest fire smoke ever has.

"It became increasingly noticeable that it was affecting my health," she said.

Freiheit said the smoke that emitted from the steel-framed and sheet-metal structure was no more toxic than smoke from any structure fire, and the gas and the alcohol burned purely, he said.

Hazardous-material tests were taken during the incident and came back negative, he said.

The still operator called Ashland Fire & Rescue at 9:49 a.m., Chambers said, after running out of the building and turning from the middle of Benson Way to see black smoke pouring from the back of the warehouse.

Fire crews were on scene a few minutes later and pulled a second alarm. Three AFR engines were supported by two engines from Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and an engine from the Oregon Department of Forestry, whose personnel were scouring the grass fields surrounding the industrial complex.

Firefighters had the blaze knocked down and were inside the structure at about 1:30 p.m. An investigator from Medford Fire Department was on scene about two hours later, and the incident is under investigation, Chambers said.

Glover said he hopes to keep his business breathing by purchasing and selling hard-to-find, high-proof spirits from distilleries in France, South America and Idaho.

Glover said at best, it will be six to eight months before he can start operating as a distillery again.

"I have to find some way to hang on to my customers, or there won't be anything left," he said.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

Firefighters from Ashland, along with Jackson County, work to extinguish the late morning fire at Alchemical Solutions on Benson Way, in Ashland on Friday, July 13, 2012. - Larry Stauth