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Farm family picking up pieces after devastating fire

Fire wiped out half of the Doerksens’ layer flock and demolished their free-range barn

An egg-farming family is putting the pieces back together after a fire wiped out half their flock and razed their state-of-the-art free-run barn on May 5.

“Personally, emotionally, it’s a really hard question to answer, how it affects (us),” said Joel Doerksen. “Our farm will never look the same again.”

Doerksen’s farm, near Blumenort in southeastern Manitoba, has been in the family for three generations.

The free-range barn contained about 28,000 hens and 16,000 pullets at the time of the fire. The farm has two laying barns — one free range and one with conventional housing.

Doerksen said he got a call from his alarm company at about 3:30 in the morning. By the time he reached the barn, he could see flames shooting through the roof.

Fast moving

RM of Hanover fire chief Paul Wiebe said when firefighters arrived, the barn was fully engulfed in flames. Crews from neighbouring New Bothwell, Kleefeld, Grunthal and Blumenort fought the blaze for two hours and remained on site until mid-afternoon putting out hot spots.

The entire south half of the barn, and all 28,000 birds were lost. The Office of the Fire Commissioner said it estimated about $2.5 million in damages.

The north half, which contained offices, mechanical areas, and the pullet barn, was saved by a fire wall.

“That’s actually quite an amazing thing,” said Doerksen. “I would say if (fire crews) were here 10 minutes later we probably would have lost the whole barn.”

He said between the wind direction, the firefighters and the firewall, the north side of the barn wasn’t damaged. The pullet barn had power and water pressure the entire time.

But now, with the pullets about two weeks from maturity, they have no place to go. Doerksen’s other barn was recently placed, he said.

They are working with industry partners to find space for the birds, said Doerksen, but as of May 9 they had not placed them.

Family impact

But for Doerksen, it’s the impact on his family that matters most.

“It is a big blow to us, in the fact that we spent… a lot of time in the barn making things better,” he said. They renovated the barn in 2014, a year-long project.

“Our whole family is involved and was involved in doing that, and so this is like our work that’s gone up in smoke,” said Doerksen.

The family was recognized for innovation and leadership in animal welfare by the Red River Exhibition Association and named “Farm Family of the Year” in 2012.

At the time, the Manitoba Co-operator reported that they were among the first Manitoba farms to install furnishable housing from Europe, which gave their birds more space and freedom.

They were also among the first in the province to build a manure storage shed in order to decrease the need for commercial fertilizer.

Doerksen said he knows they’ll rebuild but can’t say what that would look like. The barn, built in 2003, was originally a hog barn that they repurposed. The equipment inside was chosen to fit the space they had.

Meanwhile, new regulations for care and handling of poultry came into effect in 2016 and will have to be considered.

Not suspicious

The Office of the Fire Commissioner was unable to determine the cause of the fire “due to extensive damage, and the heat of the fire,” it said in an emailed statement.

The fire has not been deemed suspicious.

Doerksen said that at the time of the fire, no equipment was stored inside and the barn was in good condition.

“I still don’t know why or what,” he said. “There’s nothing in there that… I can even imagine was in any bit of a state of disrepair.”

Doerksen laughed and quoted his six-year-old son’s stoic response to the blaze. “Sometimes things burn.”

“We take a lot of pride in what we do, and we take good care of things, and this is like, yeah it blows you away a little bit.”

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