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Fire remains a mystery

EAGLE POINT — A doorway peeks out of the charred remains of the Butte Creek Mill, a rectangular hole surrounded by burned wood on the second floor.  

A month ago, that doorway led to mill owner Bob Russell's office, a cozy, well-lit space laden with historical artifacts: an old peanut roaster from Jacksonville, a carousel horse and thousands of other antique toys, books and documents. 

That space is gone now following a fire that roared to life early Christmas morning and destroyed much of the 143-year-old historic flour mill. 

"That was the door that came in. All of this had to be pulled back. That's what this pile was," Russell said Friday at the edge of a field of charred, wet rubble. "It's a miracle that some things have survived. That's why we've been a little bit more careful going through this debris."

Friday was three weeks to the day since Russell emerged from his nearby home in the early morning darkness and saw flames shooting into the sky. Since then, the process of digging out the rubble and trying to figure out how the blaze started has been a slow one. 

"The last couple of weeks have really been making sure that the building is structurally sound to be able to go into," said Ashley Lara, spokeswoman for Jackson County Fire District 3. "We've really been doing a lot of the pre-work before we've been able to go in." 

Crews plan to bring in a crane to remove the remains of the second floor and loft area.

"We want to make sure a lot of those things are removed, and then we'll be able to go in and do a complete dig and investigation at that point," Lara said. 

Crews responded to the structure fire just after 4 a.m. Christmas morning. Five engines and 18 firefighters from District 3, Medford Fire-Rescue and Lake Creek Rural Fire District battled the flames that devoured the 5,522-square-foot structure.

The cause is still not known. Fire investigators are looking through surveillance footage of the surrounding area and have conducted interviews with nearby residents. 

"We’re really doing everything else we can right now before we can get into the rest of the building," Lara said. 

For now, fire officials and volunteers continue the slow process of digging out from the rubble. Volunteer Skip Geear has been at the site almost every day since the fire. 

"I used to go to that mill quite often," Geear said. "To visit and also to buy the product. We were there a couple days before Christmas to buy products for friends of ours."

An antique collector, he used to visit the nearby antique store quite often, too. 

"It's a special place," Geear said. 

Digging through the debris is slow going, but they are making progress, he added. It's been like an archaeological dig in a way, volunteers taking care to find as many salvageable artifacts as they can while they dig. They've found plenty: classic coins, political badges — one a McKinley/Hobart presidential ticket button from 1896 — old tins and baking dishes, to name a few. 

"We want to find everything that we can," Geear said. 

Despite his efforts, Geear said, the last few weeks have been tough. 

"It's heartbreaking every time I come out here to work," he said. "But it's got to be done." 

"It's just for the love of the mill. I mean, the Butte Creek Mill was Eagle Point."

Volunteers and firefighters have collected 120 cubic yards of wood debris alone, Russell said, and there's still a ways to go. He's especially eager to get the mill stones out and see how they fared. Either way, Russell already can envision the facility rebuilt. 

"I can picture it like I'm there right now," he said. "Walking in the front door of an 1872 flour mill all running, and I think we can do it."

Much of that is a credit to the community's response, he said. 

"It doesn't matter if I say (I need) 10 cases of paper towels; they're there in half an hour. Food for the workers, all those sorts of things. It's just been phenomenal." 

And, Russell added, community optimism and enthusiasm to rebuild the historic building have helped. 

"There are people just demanding that there's no compromise," he said. "This is coming back, and they're going to figure out a way to help me do that."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Antiques and historic artifacts are being stored in a tent for preservation outside the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Bob Russell, owner of the Butte Creek Mill, works to salvage antiques and historic artifacts from debris outside the mill in Eagle Point on Friday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch