A huge column of black smoke crawled high above south Medford on Thursday afternoon as fire ripped through the four separate homes that constituted Mr. Thom's salon on South Stage Road.
Medford fire investigators are working to determine what sparked the blaze, which forced police and road crews to shut down South Stage Road at Highway 99 while firefighters worked to save what they could of the salon and bed and breakfast.
Owner Thom Martin paced in his driveway as the flames chewed through the roof of the large Victorian structure that served as the mansion's centerpiece. Finally, Martin succumbed to emotion and the heat. He took refuge under a tree just before the Victorian's six-sided tower collapsed.
"I spent 10 years putting this house together," Martin said. "It was my dream."
Medford fire received the call at 3:15 p.m. The crews knew they had their work cut out when they saw the thick column of smoke, Medford fire Battalion Chief Ken Goodson said.
"We tried to salvage what we could from the salon," Goodson said. "But at no time did we send a firefighter into the building. It was too far gone for us to take a chance like that."
Engines from Medford, Phoenix, Applegate, Jackson County Fire districts 3 and 5 and the Oregon Department of Forestry surrounded the business and hit it with water from all sides.
Martin said he was servicing five customers in the salon when the fire alarms blared. He suspects the fire started on the back patio near a newly built swimming pool.
"I had to send my customers out to safety while I tried to save some belongings," Martin said. "But I lost nearly everything...my baby grand pianos and my collection of 600 pairs of shoes. I am just blown away right now."
Flames charred several yards of grass behind the home, forcing fire crews to douse the area before the fire moved to the trees which share the 10 acre plot.
Shawn Whitescorn, who owns Gourmet to Go across the street from Mr. Thom's, heard at least one small explosion from the burning home.
"It sounded like that deep bass sound that a big firecracker makes when it's shot in the air," Whitescorn said.
Goodson said the explosions could have come from several aerosol cans inside the salon.
Neighbor Gale Christiansen was on her way back from Shady Cove when she saw the smoke from Interstate 5. Christiansen grew concerned when she the source was near her home.
"It's such a nice place," she said. "I had planned on getting married on the courtyard."
Firefighters took control of the blaze after an hour on scene. They had to battle the intense heat and a limited water supply before finally knocking down the large flames shooting from the roof.
"We only have one fire hydrant in this area," Goodson said. "We had to rely on our water tenders to help supply us."
High temperatures forced a number of firefighters to take breaks under shade before heat exhaustion or possible heat stroke could set in, Goodson said.
Medford fire inspector John Patterson said it could take days before they know what sparked the blaze.
Martin began construction on the home in 1999. He caused a stir when he decided to piece the home together from four homes taken from across Jackson County. In December 1999 fire swept through one of the homes, forcing Martin to rebuild the structure.
In addition to the home, Martin lost an antique car and several photographs signed by movie stars.
"I'm sick to my stomach to think about what I lost," Martin said. "These firefighters did a wonderful job salvaging what they could for me."
Medford firefighters received another jolt while battling the fire. Dispatch announced a possible blaze at Abraham Lincoln Elementary on Mclaughlin Drive just after 4 p.m. Thankfully, the fire was contained to a small patch of grass in the school's courtyard. Three juveniles are suspected of setting the blaze.
"That would have been tough," Goodson said. "We had most of our units on the South Stage fire."
Martin was comforted by his customers and friends while his home and business burned to the ground. He had planned to host a large party Saturday to celebrate his birthday.
"Who knows, I may have it anyway," he said.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.