What could simply be a story of loss and destruction is also a story of a tight-knit, selfless farming community.
When a large-scale blaze tore through an Agassiz farm Wednesday night, Sept. 19 – ultimately claiming three cows and destroying all the farm buildings – neighbours didn’t think twice about running in to help.
It was about 10:50 p.m. when residents near the 1500 block of Cameron Road started smelling smoke. It didn’t take long for a neighbour to see that the Peterson family’s dairy farm was on fire.
The Agassiz Fire Department (AFD) was paged at approximately 10:55 p.m., but as they were driving out, sirens blaring, the orange glow and billowing smoke made it clear they would need help fighting the massive blaze.
When AFD arrived, buildings near the back of the property were burning, but within 20 minutes, almost everything was engulfed in flames.
AFD chief Wayne Dyer told the Observer that during his nearly 28-year career, he has fought only four barn fires of this magnitude. Still, on the drive out, he knew what the crew was heading to.
“All you see is a fire ball from one end to the other,” he said. “It’s going to be a long process of trying to get [the fire] out. Hay – dry and compact – just keeps burning forever,” he said. “You’ve got to dig it all out, spread it out, wet it down and come back and keep doing that until it’s all out.”
|Fire crews from Agassiz, Popkum, Seabird Island and Chilliwack battled a massive blaze through Wednesday night and into the morning.(Shane MacKichan)|
Firefighters from Popkum, Seabird Island and Chilliwack joined the fight against the massive blaze as it tore through structures on the properties.
Now, smoldering metal, wood and piles of hay are all that’s left of the Peterson’s dairy farm. The family homes sit untouched, but little else remains.
It’s hard to believe, but the damage could have been far worse, says Ruby Peterson, if not for the quick action of other farmers in the area.
“I have some very, very good neighbours,” she said.
Three of Peterson’s 70 cows died – a devastating loss for the family. But those losses could have been higher if neighbours hadn’t helped free the animals, round them up and load them onto trailers, taking them to nearby properties for safe keeping. In fact, the number of lost cows was believed to be higher, but two calves were eventually located in the days following the fire.
“The livestock, this is their home,” Dyer said. “If they don’t keep them out [of the building], they’ll want to run right back into it.”
The morning after the fire, the neighbours were back, standing at the end of the driveway surrounding the family, still in disbelief at the inferno that lit the sky for kilometres around.
Just metres away, smoking ruins are all that’s left of buildings that have stood for generations.
One neighbour, a man named Dennis, is credited with saving many of the cows, Peterson told the Observer.
Then there’s neighbours Diane Allison and Kim Kehler who called 911 and ran over, without thinking, to see how they could help.
Allison was in a house coat and gumboots, helping to herd the cows and keep them organized.
“[The fire] was just red, just an inferno, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
Kehler, his hands slightly burned from touching melting hutches the night before, can’t believe the way neighbours came together.
“It worked like a fine-oiled machine, the way they loaded three sections [of cows] three times down the field, it was just… I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It was unbelievable. “What I saw last night was amazing, the people here are incredible.”
“The dairy community is a tight community. When one gets in trouble, they’re all here,” he added.
|By all accounts, neighbours quickly and efficiently freed and rounded up the cows in nearby fields before loading them up and taking them to safety on nearby properties. (Submitted/Charmaine Weiss)|
Fire crews remained on scene for a few days follwoing the fire, wetting the hay and rubble until it could be cleared up.w
The cause of the fire is not confirmed, but Dyer said it likely started in the wood-built silo bunker, where corn silage and hay was stored. It’s possible the bunker overheated, igniting the hay and starting the fast-spreading blaze.
“I don’t know why it started, they’ve been doing that process for 40 years – why this took off, we don’t know.”