By Amanda Brodhagen
As I was mulling over what to write about, I was sitting on a recliner chair in the living room of our farmhouse scrolling through my smartphone (like most millennials) when I saw a tweet that my Fire Chief, Bill Hunter serving West Perth and Perth East retweeted from OPP West Region. The tweet showed a scene of a cattle barn fire in my township. I took a long pause because it triggered memories from when my family experienced a barn fire in November of 2011.
I can still remember the call that I got from my mom as I was about to head to my 8:30 a.m. university class. She said, “The barn is on fire, the cattle are saved.” I started to cry and she said, If you’re going to cry stay put or come home and help.”
I fought back tears and drove the hour from Guelph to my family’s farm near Rostock. When I arrived, there were flames everywhere and our historic barn was gone. My dad had burns on his arms from trying to rescue the cattle and was in a state of panic. It was like a nightmare. The volunteer firefighters were at the scene trying to save the surrounding buildings and our house, which they miraculously managed to do. Neighbours were gathered on the front lawn and many had offered us food and help to get through. God bless them. It was one of the hardest events that our family has ever gone through. The event itself was tragic, but it was the months afterwards that were the most difficult. As a farmer you wake up and go to the barn, but we would wake up and there was no barn to go to. Looking back, I realize now that our family’s mental health suffered, especially my dad’s. Mental health wasn’t talked about then (and that wasn’t that long ago) or even something I could verbalize. But we pulled through. My parents are resilient people, as most farm people are. It was thanks to our community who helped us get through.
The point is, barn fires are horrific events.
Statistically speaking, the number of barn fires has decreased in Ontario, but unlike a decade ago, they are receiving more media attention. And the media attention can sometimes cause more harm than good with increased attention from the pubic that may have concerns about animal welfare if animals perish. There are lots of good resources that the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Farm and Food Care have provided on how to prevent barn fires, but there’s no kit that I’ve found at least on how to deal with the social and mental impact following the aftermath of a barn fire.
I asked my dad what some of the things were that really helped us get through:
1) Friends and neighbours brought us food
2) We had a neighbour get coffee and donuts for the firefighters that had to spend the night fighting the fire
3) Neighbours offered us hay and straw
4) People offered their help to sort cattle and truck them
My dad said that after the barn fire you find out in a hurry which neighbours really care. We also found that the neighbours who they themselves had experienced a barn fire at point or another were the most helpful, because they could relate and knew exactly what to do.
These disastrous events are tragic for farm families with often livestock and equipment being lost. With all those factors and the loss of income it can take its toll. It took our family years to fully get back on our feet even with good insurance coverage.
When I see events like these in the media, my heart goes out to the families. I also think that barn fires can bring the farming community together. It really shows our strength and resiliency. I am thankful for our outstanding volunteer firefighters who serve our rural communities. If you are a firefighter reading this, thank you for your service. It truly doesn’t go unnoticed.
My advice to someone who has gone through a barn fire is to be kind and helpful or stay away. My brother is high-functioning autistic and he was remarkably the most calm of us all (besides my mother who held the family together). What he wrote on Facebook in 2011 still resonates:
“I feel I need to journal my thoughts, feelings, and facts about this disaster. When I got to the farm some of the ruins of the barn were still burning, and since it was dark by the time I was there, it truly looked like a cruel hellish disaster. The firefighters were keeping watch to make sure it couldn’t flame back up and engulf any other buildings for the rest of the night. If any firefighter from that blaze is reading this, I thank you very much. The cause of the fire is unknown, and it lit up so quickly and burned the barn with such intensity, that we will likely never know.”
It was a lengthy note on Facebook and we, as his family, were all amazed that he could articulate so well what had happened. Being a feline lover, he was really worried about the barn cats but he also had this good advice for us all (especially those of us who are nosy):
“You can drive in and chat, but don’t slink by and say nothing to us, it’s very cruel.”
Either pitch in and help or stay at home. With that, I’m going to take my own piece of advice and drop off a pie to that family who just lost their barn and some cattle. It’s the least I can do. ◊