Alvinston farm family ‘blown away’ by community support after fire

A backhoe operated by Dan McNally moved flaming hay out of the way.
A backhoe operated by Dan McNally moved flaming hay out of the way during Sunday's fire.

Amber Chalcraft was just about to light the birthday candles on her son Marcus’ birthday cake when she saw the smoke.

Flames were licking out of a shop and  drive shed holding farm equipment, straw, hay and feed for the cattle operation just meters from her kitchen window.

With the help of family, friends, neighbours and firefighters, the Chalcrafts were able to save their cattle and stop the blaze from spreading to their nearby house and barn on Old Walnut Road Sunday afternoon. Even as they are grateful for the help of the community, Chalcraft says the loss is devastating and traumatic.

The Chalcrafts had family and friends over Sunday to celebrate their three year-old’s birthday. Chalcraft saw the power flicker. Then, she looked out the window and saw the smoke coming from the shop at the back of the drive shed.

“It was just like a rush … Everything was going so fast.”

The biggest concern was the animals – the Chalcrafts are beef farmers and about three dozen cattle were in the barn behind the burning shed. And in the 60’ by 60’ shop attached to it, there were 80 piglets the couple had just purchased.

“Everybody was trying to get cattle out and the guys were saying that the fire was so hot when they were trying to open gates that the gates were so hot to touch, they’re burning their hands to try to get the cattle out of the barns,” she said. 

Somehow, they managed to get them outside. Neighbours joined family and friends and moved the cattle down Old Walnut Road to another pasture Chalcraft’s father owns.

And while they tried, the piglets were lost in the fire.

“My brother tried to save them and he couldn’t open the door, it was too hot. He couldn’t touch it.”

Chalcraft says the Brooke Fire Service arrived quickly and, Dan McNally of McNally’s Equipment in Inwood was driving a backhoe across the field to join the fight to keep the blaze from spreading.

McNally had seen the smoke across Courtright Line and already had the equipment loaded and was on his way when the fire department called for help.

“Watching him come across the field to help save our farm is something I will never forget,” she says. “He didn’t even ask questions. He just started to help us and we were just blown away.”

Brooke Fire Chief Steve Knight was glad to have the heavy equipment on hand early. 

“Any type of hay or straw bale, it’s compressed material as it’s burning. So, the fire gets deep seated into it. So, applied water, foam or anything from the exterior doesn’t penetrate the same way the fire would as it grows,” says Knight.

 “With those types of fires, the only real way to do it is to get all of the material out of the building, and spread it out to the put fire out.”

The Ontario Fire Marshal’s office was called in to investigate the cause of the fire since more than $500,000 damage was done in the blaze. 

Knight says it appeared an electrical problem may have started it, but the cause is listed as undetermined.

“We brought a backhoe in because of the nature of the fire – it pretty much tears through everything just to get the fire out,” says Chief Knight.

Meantime, the Chalcrafts are trying to figure out the next steps. Finding feed and bedding for the cattle was one of the big concerns, but neighbours have once again pitched in. 

“We are fortunate that we had a lot of farmers stopped by yesterday (Monday) and a lot of them were offering straw and hay and grain,” says Chalcraft.  

“We had calls all hours of the day just to make sure we had enough for animals because they didn’t want us to go without… Anything you could imagine for our animals, they were offering in case we lost medicine or anything.

“I just couldn’t believe, I was blown away. I just sat there in tears because they were so sweet.”

The cattle returned to the barn Tuesday and Chalcraft and her husband were talking with insurance agents about next steps. Aside from the building, the bedding and the feed, the couple also lost farm equipment in the blaze, including an old tractor, a combine and pickup truck. 

Two campers which were up against the drive shed were pulled to safety.

“I just feel for my dad the most I guess, because he watched his family …build what basically was burned to the ground.”

And while it is difficult right now, Chalcraft says they will get through it.

“We’re just thankful that the cattle got out and no one was injured and that we still have a family. 

“That was the biggest thing. And the house – the house was okay.”

As for the birthday boy, Chalcraft says he did eventually get his birthday cake, courtesy of his aunt and uncle who picked him and his brother up that evening. They bought a cake with candles and had a little celebration far from all the fire trucks.