Dale and Gary Preston could do nothing but stand and watch as their dairy barn burned to the ground Thursday afternoon.
“Total disbelief would be the best way to describe it,” Gary Preston said. “If somebody told me my barn was going to burn today, I would have told them they were nuts. It’s hard to digest it all.”
Smoke rising from the Hawley Road farmstead in Pittsfield Township could be seen from three miles away.
Firefighters from Oberlin, Wellington, Carlisle Township, Wakeman, Camden Township, LaGrange Township, Grafton, and Elyria Township fought the flames. The barn was fully engulfed when word of the fire reached them around 2 p.m.
By 3:30 p.m., firefighters were still finding hot spots and spring winds kept breathing life back into the fire. Hay continued to smolder and some of the barn’s fallen beams remained aglow.
Nearby brush was a burn risk the rest of the day, Oberlin fire chief Bob Hanmer said. He estimated nearly 180,000 to 200,000 gallons of water were used to control the situation.
About 20 dairy cows and calves were killed, the youngest just two months old. Some equipment also was destroyed, such as milk tanks and vacuum pump milking machines, but tractors were safe in a nearby barn and no humans were injured.
Preston was sitting in his pick-up truck nearby when he noticed a hay feeder catch fire. He said he has no idea how it began.
His first thought was to try to save the cows, but within two minutes the whole barn was ablaze. “I feel defeated,” he said. “I couldn’t get in there. It went up instantly.”
“I had hopes of getting my brother and saving some cows,” he said. “I have a couple of heifer calves with good genetics and high classification scores. That was my first thought — to at least save them — but I just couldn’t do anything. I would have been risking my life and basically committing suicide if I went in there.”
Seventeen cows broke free without harm and stood nearby. Preston said he is considering giving the cows to Roger Mohrman, a fellow farmer.
Susan Rosa followed the fire trucks when she heard sirens blare past her house one road away from the barn.
“This would have been the last thing I ever thought would happen here, to tell you the truth,” she said.
Preston said he isn’t ready to quit the dairy business. The brothers have owned the farm since May 1, 1972.
“I don’t think any of us are ready to throw in the towel,” he said. “Even though I’m 70, I still like working here.”
The farm is insured by Wayne Insurance Group.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.