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A firefighter from Jackson County Fire District No. 3 surveys the scene Friday near the Ferry Morse Seed Co. in White City. Propane tanks exploded near the business during the fire.

Fire rages in White City

A1967 Chevrolet dump truck was the only thing Allen Surgeon managed to rescue from a massive fire that burned his family business and at least one other Friday afternoon.

Surgeon was working nearby when a fire sparked just before 5 p.m. at Davis Finish Products at 1790 Avenue G in White City.

"At first I thought Biomass was on fire, but as I got closer I realized it was my business," Surgeon said.

The flames quickly spread throughout Davis Finish Products' 140,000-square-foot complex, setting the roof afire. Burning embers from the charred shop, which makes custom cabinets and doors, took flight on the wind and started several grass fires across a miles-long stretch of White City.

Surgeon watched as the grass outside Rogue Valley Post and Pole, a business he and his wife, Tonja Surgeon, founded 27 years ago, caught fire. He could do little to keep the flames from his company.

"I got my dump truck out of there," Surgeon said. "It isn't worth nothing to anybody else but me, but it was the first piece of equipment I bought when I started the business."

Eventually, his business was reduced to rubble. Surgeon and his wife fought back tears as firefighters worked desperately to douse the flames before they spread to other businesses along Agate Road and Avenue G.

Authorities still are investigating the cause of the blaze. Jackson County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said fire officials believe Davis Finish Products was at or near the source of the fire.

"This fire became so large and burned so much land that it's going to take a while to investigate," Carlson said.

Joanne Singler saw the large column of black and grey smoke from White City and made the trek across town to investigate. She arrived just in time to see Davis Finish Products consumed by flames.

"It was gnarly," Singler said. "These flaming, frisbee-sized shingles flew from the roof and caught the grass all around on fire."

The breezy conditions coupled with 100-degree heat made for a tough fight for fire crews who came from across Southern Oregon.

"Every fire department in Jackson County and some from Josephine County were on the scene," Carlson said.

Jackson County Fire District No. 3's headquarters sits just across the street from Davis Finish Products. The firefighters were on scene within a minute.

In all, 25 fire engines and approximately 100 firefighters worked through heat and heavy smoke to douse the flames.

Employees from Royal Oak Charcoal, just across the street from Surgeon's business on Agate Road, soaked the weeds in front of their building with garden hoses.

Police shut down all roads leading to Agate Road and Avenue G, causing traffic backups on Highway 62.

Sheriff's deputies shooed away onlookers along Agate Road minutes before a handful of propane tanks exploded near Ferry Morse Seed Co., a large metal building at the intersection of Agate Road and White City.

The flames came within three feet of the seed company, said former employee Lucas Miracle.

"It was close," Miracle said. "We could have had more businesses burned today."

Flames crept through the grass and reached a parked camper trailer, and a building near Rogue Valley Post and Pole caught fire at 6 p.m. Witnesses said the building housed several classic Ford Mustangs.

Fire crews lined the blaze by 6:30 and were in the process of snuffing lingering grass fires and hotspots late in the evening, Carlson said.

The oppressive heat and exhaustion took their toll. The fire departments started to rotate crews in and out of the scene.

"The guys who had been there since the beginning needed some food and water," Carlson said.

The tower of smoke the blaze kicked up was fully visible from downtown Medford. Witnesses said embers had sparked small grass fires at Burger King and other businesses in White City.

The chaos shut down business as usual in White City for most of the afternoon. A think bank of smoke drifted though downtown, hampering visibility across a large swath of Highway 62.

"It spread fast with the wind," Brianna Schauffler said. "We could hear the explosions all over White City."

Roseburg-resident Amanda Sumner was in town for a visit and got some unexpected excitement.

"I was here right when it started," she said from along Agate Road. "It only took a few minutes and there was fire everywhere."

Fire crews won't know for a while how many buildings were destroyed by the fire. The area was home to a large collection of out-buildings and storage units.

Davis Finish Products was founded in 1994. In addition to the 140,000-square-foot shop it comprised a 2,000-square-foot showroom, according to the business' website.

The Surgeons planned to hire back some employees they let go during the recession. They had hoped to ramp up production in the coming weeks.

And now, without insurance on the business, they are at a crossroads.

"We lost everything," Allen Surgeon said. "It was everything we worked our whole lives for."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail him at cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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