AYLMER — A wall of flames 1,000 feet wide; nearly 800 cattle trapped inside a massive, burning barn; and freezing temperatures rapidly turning to ice on the ground.
This is what Malahide township firefighters were up against last month, after a blaze broke out at Walker Dairy Farm at Aylmer, a massive dairy, breeding and cow sale operation in Elgin County.
Firefighters got the call at around 5 p.m. on Feb. 17 after a trucker, on-site to pick up a load of cattle, spotted smoke coming from the milk parlour.
Firefighters were on the scene inside of seven minutes, said fire chief Brent Smith. Their task was monumental but they did have help.
Help in its first form was a drone equipped with a thermal camera to survey heat intensity in the massive barn and track where the fire was and where it was going. The township has had the drone for nearly two years say it is a major asset when dealing with large fires. Help in its second form was the district fire chief, who used to work at Walker Dairy Farm and knew the barn’s layout.
Barns pose serious problems for firefighters because, with no set floor plan and open designs, fire can spread freely and firefighters can’t always predict its path.
But with these two assets, firefighters could get to work, Smith said. And the sheer scale of the fire demanded a proportional response: calling for help from other townships. At the fire’s peak there were 100 firefighters on scene battling the blaze.
They evacuated around 20 cows from the milkhouse, where the fire started and where another 48 were trapped by the rapidly spreading flames. Moving through the barn the firefighters ferried out around 700 cows. About 300 cows fled to the west wing of the barn, and Smith realized they were going to have to hold the flames off to keep them alive.
Fortunately, the barn has two wings that flare out from the front body of the barn. The west wing where the cows fled was untouched by fire. So with the help of an aerial platform, a giant ladder on top of a fire truck, and three attack teams of around three firefighters with large-bore hoses inside the barn, they made their stand and held off the encroaching flames. There was one final form of help. It came from Mother Nature, Smith said. There was “virtually no wind that night.” If there had been, their best efforts would’ve been for naught.
It took over eight hours to get the flames under control. Once they’d held the fire back, they called in an excavator and tore away the connecting section of the building to ensure their pocket stayed safe, and set to work dousing the original fire.
The fire wreaked terrible devastation. At least 100 cattle were believed to have died, either in the flames or were later euthanized after suffering severe smoke inhalation. Smith estimated damage and losses as high as $3 million. The front part of the barn was totally destroyed, as was the milk house, milking parlour, the office, one of the cattle areas and the bulk milk storage area. Two cattle barns and the workshop were saved.
The fire is not considered suspicious. It started in the milk house, Smith said, where the only ignition source is the electrical panelling. The exact cause is impossible to determine at this point, but Smith said rodent damage, degradation or just old age can all cause electrical fires. Livestock barns are particularly vulnerable to degradation because of the humidity and higher levels of corrosive gases like ammonia.
The firefighters weren’t the only ones to respond. So many farmers turned out with trailers to take cattle that firefighters had to redirect them, because they were getting in the way of the water tankers coming from other fire stations, Smith said.
The Walker family posted their gratitude on Facebook the day after the fire. “THANK YOU for the overwhelming support from our friends & neighbour’s in relocating cattle last night after the devastating fire,” they wrote.
“THANK YOU to all Malahide stations, Bayham-Stratfordville, Central Elgin -Yarmouth Center station & Aylmer fire department for their handling of the situation that could have been worse.
We are so very thankful no people were injured. Barns can be rebuilt.
It is hard to put into words our appreciation.”
The family hardly missed a beat. They were back to work the next day and posted a catalogue for an upcoming monthly cattle sale on March 5.