In the early morning hours of June 2, farmers Peter and Hennie Doornenbal, who live west of Ponoka on Highway 53, were confronted with the unthinkable when their dairy barn started to burn down.
The first sign that there was problem was when the power went out. Hennie was just still up and Peter was in bed. A backup generator kicked in and Peter decided to check and make sure everything in the barn was working properly. He walked into the barn at about 1:15 a.m. and saw smoke throughout the building.
“Then I knew something was terribly wrong,” said Peter.
He ran back to the house to tell Hennie, who then called 911 at 1:19 a.m. It didn’t take long for the Ponoka Fire Department to arrive but flames had already fully engulfed the building.
After the 911 call was made, Peter ran back to the barn in an attempt to save his cattle but the heat and flames were so strong there was not much he could do. There was an automatic door in the barn and with the power out Peter was unable to open it quickly enough.
It is difficult for Peter to remember what he was thinking during the fire barn as everything happened so quickly. “You just think, ‘What can I do?’”
“You just don’t believe your eyes,” added Hennie.
The fire was so ferocious that even three days later, smoke still smoldered in certain parts of the destroyed barn. Over 100 cattle perished in the blaze along with 60 young stock, leaving the Doornenbals with a depleted herd. He said 13 cows were able to get out of the barn and are starting to recover.
While the exact cause of the blaze is still under investigation, the Doornenbals are faced with an almost insurmountable task of picking up their lives and moving forward. Peter and Hennie have to deal with not only the barn clean up but also the proper disposal the cattle.
In order to protect their home, the fire department contained the flames to only the barn and the Doornenbal’s home received some heat damage. Firefighters also had to ensure that a diesel storage tank nearby was watered to ensure it did not ignite.
“That was really good. They kept that cool,” said Peter.
He is grateful for their efforts at containing the fire.
Picking up the pieces
The fire raised some serious questions for Peter, who is 56 and getting close to retirement. If there is anything he loves most, it is farming. Hennie says he does not have any real hobby because farming has been Peter’s passion all his life.
He thought his life as a farmer was over the night of the fire, but the next day “I walked through the yard and I said, ‘No. I cannot go like that,’” Peter recollected the moment.
“Instead of working to 65, I’m going to work to 70,” Peter joked.
With help from friends and family, the Doornenbals have tried to keep their spirits up and they still manage to get in a few laughs. They also talk about things to help deal with the stress.
“We talk a lot. To sort things out in your mind, too,” said Hennie.
Advice from friends has varied from calling it quits to rebuilding, but one thing the Doornenbals have been most humbled by is the community support. Friends have come to visit at different times in the day, which has also given the couple a chance to take a break from picking up the pieces.
Having security on site has also been a peace of mind. Hennie said knowing someone was in the yard watching over things gave her a chance to sleep; otherwise she would be worrying about the fire re-igniting. Peter has kept busy getting the utilities working again. The Doornenbals were without gas and water for two days.
“I never thought I would be happy to do laundry,” Hennie added with a small laugh.
Fourteen firefighters and four fire trucks attended the scene and crews were at the Doornenbals for approximately four hours to quell the blaze.