Jennifer Leadbeater, owner of J&J Farms northeast of Napanee, ON, was cooking dinner for her family on March 10th when the fire started.
Standing at her sink washing dishes and looking out the window, she saw her son running towards the house, his girlfriend with a phone to her ear. Leadbeater was confused; maybe one of them was hurt, she thought.
She was looking up at the sky above one of the buildings on their 100-acre property when she first saw the smoke billowing up and away from their 36-stall barn.
“I think our barn’s on fire,” yelled Leadbeater as her family slipped their boots on and ran out to the steel barn which housed 33 horses, four pigs and seven cows.
The west end of their barn, only 50 metres away from their home, was already engulfed in flames.
While rescue crews were on their way, Leadbeater said instinct kicked in as her family scattered around the barn to save their animals.
While the majority of the horses, many of which were boarders, were thankfully in the paddocks and not yet turned in for the night, three miniatures and one horse remained in the stalls. The ponies emerged unscathed, noted Leadbeater, but another horse, Diego, was struggling. Overwhelmed by the smoke and flames, he refused to move when her son attempted to remove him from his stall.
According to a five-year study by Humane Society International Canada, at least 740,000 farm animals died due to barn fires in the country between 2015-2019. While chickens made of the majority (74%) of this number, 199 horses and ponies died during this period.
“He was rearing and he was spinning and he was scared [because] he could see the flames,” said Leadbeater, who noted that by this point the smoke became so thick that she could no longer see her son in the barn. “My son hollered at me and I went over and I touched him and said ‘Diego, it’s okay. You need to trust us and come with us’. As soon as he heard my voice, he just seemed to relax and he came out and he was perfectly fine.”
All the horses were saved, but other animals weren’t as lucky, notes Leadbeater.
When the fire first broke out, her husband tried to locate their pigs and cows, two of which were pregnant and expected to deliver any day.
While he managed to get the cows out of the barn, one of the pregnant ones, which was now in active labour and had her calf “half out of her,” ran directly back into the flames.
“She ran right back into the barn to her pen where she would have gone to have her calf and her sister followed her and so they both died. We couldn’t get back in the barn to get them out,” said a devastated Leadbeater. The pigs and some poultry could also not be saved.
Their local fire department arrived within 15 minutes, but Leadbeater says they had to call in three additional departments for reinforcement.
“They still couldn’t keep it under control. Once it hit the electrical panel, the whole barn just blew and hydro lines came down,” said Leadbeater. “After they got the hydro cleared up and out of the way… by that time the main barn and all the little barns that were off of it were too far gone, and they couldn’t get it under control.”
She says the department decided to knock the whole steel building down soon after.
“It wasn’t even a wood barn and it was still that bad when they were trying to fight [the fire],” said Leadbeater. “The water was turning into steam before it even hit the fire, that’s how hot it was.”
The whole experience was horrific, says Leadbeater, especially when they thought they were also going to lose their house.
“It is your whole life going up in flames,” said Leadbeater. “We have no power. We have no water, because it wrecked our well. These are all things that are not insured through the barn, they’re not insured, period… All of our hay, all of our feed, our fencing, everything was just demolished and so we are basically starting from scratch at this point.”
“It’s completely devastating.”
Louisa Leal, owner of Canadian Lusitanos – a breeding, boarding and training stable based in Caledon, ON – also knows that reality all too well.
Back in November of 2021, she lost everything in her 14,000 sq. ft. barn after a fire claimed their entire building that she used to operate her business, raising and training Lusitanos for dressage.
It was Leal’s trainer who first saw the fire. In the early morning of November 27th, as he turned out the horses to the paddock one by one, Leal says he smelled smoke emerging from the loft. Once he notified Leal of the fire, her family was fortunate to be able to get the remaining horses to safety before the entire building went up in flames.
“The fire marshal told me when he was on site that he pretty much knew when they arrived that there wasn’t going to be much they could do because of the way the wind was blowing,” said Leal. “The fire was in the back part of the barn, upper level, and they couldn’t get to it because the smoke was so thick.”
“It’s traumatizing,” said Leal, thinking back to that morning. “It’s been three months, but you still talk about it every day, you dream about it… It’s completely devastating. They say, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’; well all my eggs were in that basket. Anything I needed, anything we had to help run the little business we have here on this property, burned in that fire. It’s like you’re starting from scratch, you’re starting all over again.”
Upon investigation, the fire department ruled the blaze out as an electrical fire, says Leal. A likely cause was mice, raccoons or other small animals which damaged wiring. The fire chief and insurance company investigator suspect a similar cause in the J&J Farms fire, which spread so quickly because it was sparked near the part of the barn where they store their hay, shavings and feed.
Although they didn’t lose any horses in the fire, Leal did lose one from the stress of the ordeal, passing away after developing colic.
“Just the whole trauma of the fire and then moving to a new location, not being familiar with it, he suffered a colic, a really bad colic, and I lost him,” said Leal sadly. “All that on top of the fire and everything else, like sometimes you sit back and you think, do I really want to continue to do this? But I’ve got a good team of people behind me, supporting me, and we’re going forward and we’re going to rebuild the barn, and we’re going to get back on our feet.”
Although they aim to get their barn built and up and running soon, the fire took a real toll on their business and daily operations, says Leal.
In addition to a change of location for her horses, Leal says they also lost their training arena when the cover melted from the fire’s heat damage. She admits it has been a real challenge to adapt.
“As far as business on the farm, it’s been halted,” said Leal. “We continue to train and work our horses at a temporary location and that’s the best that we could do. That’s where we’re at.”
Aaron Stelkia, who operates Indian Grove Riding Stables, a ranching, guide outfitting and trail riding business, from his ranch in the Osoyoos Indian Reserve in BC’s southern Okanagan Valley region, experienced some of the same challenges of a halted business last summer when the BC wildfires threatened his property and area for weeks on end.
The fire, which spread across close to 70,000 acres, first started around the end of July. Strong south winds pushed the fire north rapidly.
“It was an extremely hard fire for them to fight,” said Stelkia. “They flanked it with water bombers on the one side to keep it from going towards town and houses… the second day they had a change of wind direction and the fire burned towards Osoyoos, which is my riding stable area.”
With business already slow from the pandemic, the wildfires added another unexpected challenge, says Stelkia. From July until October 14th, there was a “no entry” mandate into his riding area – a period he says is the midst of the region’s “busy season.”
“Even though the fire was under control in the lower areas, we still could not go in there…. So we had one of the worst seasons ever,” said Stelkia.
Although he says he set up fire guards to save his facilities and only lost his fencing to the fire, the ensuing challenges continue to follow him. With the drought, fire and floods of the past few months in the province, the hay shortage resulted in a steep increase in the cost of feed. Last year a ton of hay cost Stelkia around $200, but now with the shortage it has more than doubled in price, now costing anywhere from $400-$600 a ton.
Having already sold half his 400 head of cattle in the fall, Stelkia says the costs of feeding his own horses, cattle and the wild horses he took in following the natural disasters means he will have to continue to sell his cattle to make up some of the costs.
“We were devastated and we’re still having to sell a bunch of our cattle and the ones that have had calves. We’re going to be taking them to the auction here just to try and recover some of the costs and keep our head above water,” said Stelkia.
He says other neighbours and ranchers in the area are also struggling, and some weren’t as lucky to keep their infrastructure intact.
“A couple of structures were burned down. But a lot of the community went out there and helped fight these fires and stuff like that. If it weren’t for the community members then…” says Stelkia, his voice trailing off as he notes that the community helped fellow farmers and ranchers in their time of need.
It’s a common thread experienced by those dealing with fires which threaten their livelihood.
Leadbeater said that in the days following the fire at their Ontario farm, the community showed up, with some of her boarders even setting up a GoFundMe page to help recoup some of the losses. (A similar GoFundMe effort was set up for the Leal’s Canadian Lusitanos fire recovery.)
“This whole thing melts my heart,” said Leadbeater. “The support from the community that we’ve had and just how everybody, even people that I have never even met or heard of before, are bringing stuff to help us look after the animals… I just can’t believe it. And I think when something like this happens, when the community gets together like this, that should be recognized because if it wasn’t for them, then I don’t even want to think about where we would be right now.”