Firefighters Respond to Barn Fire

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Thursday February 26, 2015

On Wednesday February 18, at 7:45 p.m. South Burlington Firefighters received report of a fire at the Belter family’s historic Ethan Allen Farm, which is located at the end of Ethan Allen Dr., beyond the industrial park.

This part of the city has an automatic mutual aid response system in place with the Vermont Air National Guard Fire Department because of its nearby location. VTANG arrived on the scene just three minutes after the call and noted fire coming from a cluster of four barns with flame heights exceeding 70 feet. The South Burlington Fire Department arrived within minutes and joined the effort to stop the fire as it spread into a second barn.

Because of the intensity and size of the fire, mutual aid was requested from additional departments. Fire departments from Burlington, St. Michael’s, Essex Jct, Essex Town, Colchester Center VFC and UVM Rescue all responded to the call. Firefighters from Williston and Shelburne staffed SBFD stations. A total of 40 firefighters were involved in the suppression of the fire.

SBFD Chief Brent noted that the quick response of the fire departments resulted in stopping the fire loss at one calf barn and part of a feed barn.

The barn fire presented unique challenges to firefighters. In addition to controlling the fire in and around the barns, moving and controlling the livestock that are housed in the structures stretched firefighting resources, as they attempted to save the animals. All of the adult cows were moved to safe locations away from the fire. Sadly, the 20 calves housed in the calf barn were lost in the fire.

Lisa Friedman, who had just rented office space down the road, was on the way to her Great American Dream Realty office, when she saw flames billowing in the night sky. Friedman hurried over to help with cows that were wandering around, trying to keep them away from the fire and out of the way of the emergency vehicles. She corralled some of the herd into a shed to keep them out of harm’s way, but the frightened cows eventually pushed past her. Friedman said she experienced a sense of helplessness, knowing that there wasn’t much she could do. But she still tried to provide whatever comfort she could, talking soothingly to the frightened cows. Friedman said it was upsetting to see such fear in the eyes of the animals and to see them trembling and slipping on the ice.

Over the course of the evening Friedman, an avid photographer, captured images of the fire and the firefighters as they worked to control the flames.

Friedman said that her respect for our firefighters has increased tenfold after seeing them in action firsthand and hopes that everyone in the community realizes what an incredible job they do.
The SBFD Fire Marshal’s office conducted an investigation and determined that the fire was an accident. A kerosene heater used in the calf barn to provide heat for the animals, and to keep water lines from freezing was kicked over by a calf that had gotten out if its pen. Damage is estimated at $ 200,000.

The Belter’s 270 acre Ethan Allen Farm is the only working family dairy farm in South Burlington, tucked away in the northeast corner along the Winooski River. John and Joyce Belter, along with their son Todd and his wife Jennifer and their young son John have owned and worked their dairy farm for 39 years. They manage a herd of 200 dairy cows and 250 heifers.

The farm has been home to numerous families over the years and the Belters believe its history goes back to the late 1700’s when Ethan and Ira Allen were its original owners. However, over time, the original buildings have been replaced with newer buildings as the needs of the farm have changed.

On Sunday, a group of friends gathered to to build a temporary structure over the mixing box in the feed room. Joyce Belter said the outpouring of help from many hands felt much like an old-fashioned barn raising. The Belters express deep gratitude for the hard work of the firefighters, and the support of friends and neighbors, and are maintaining a positive outlook.

Plans to rebuild a new calf barn are in the works, and time is of the essence. The life cycle of the farm continues, and has the family looking forward to the future. In the week since the fire, two new calves have been born on the Belter farm, and they will be joined by 40 more newborn calves over the next months.