MORROW COUNTY — By the time fire crews were called to a barn fire on Township Road 23 in Morrow County on Sunday afternoon, smoke and flames had already taken the lives of the 24 horses that lived in the 100-by-106-foot steel building.
“There was no question the horses were gone,” said Fire Chief Harlan Barrick of the Perry Congress Fire District in Johnsville. “Their survivability was not probable due to the fire burning for a while before we were called; it was obvious none of the horses survived.”
The Higgins family, which owns the property, was at church when the fire broke out, according to Barrick. A motorist saw the fire around 12:30 p.m., and called 9-1-1.
Barrick said that when the first engine companies arrived from Johnsville, the entire building was engulfed in flames. Knowing there were several horses trapped inside, Barrick and two of his firefighters attempted to enter the structure.
“Three of us actually went in to attack the fire from the interior side,” Barrick said. “We were in no more than 15 feet, and the big, heavy steel beams were already collapsing.”
Everyone was ordered out of the building.
“You try to make every effort you can,” Barrick said of the attempt to save the animals trapped inside. “It’s tough.”
The barn was built in October. Owners Dale and Nancy Higgins have been active in the horse business for many years, according to longtime family friend Becky Payne.
The Higgins’ daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Heath Ratcliff, were following her parents’ path into the horse business. Most of the horses that perished belonged to Sarah and Heath, according to Payne.
“I can’t even imagine losing so many horses; they are like members of the family,” Payne said.
Payne said she and her family could identify with some of what the family is going through because they lost their home to a house fire a year ago.
Payne said the Higgins family was among the first to step forward to ask how they could help when she and her husband, Matt, and daughter, Jordan, lost all of their belongings, and some of their family pets in the fire which destroyed their home Jan. 16, 2009. Payne said she and her family are looking forward to being able to return the kindness.
“They are very dear people,” Payne said. “They are the kind of people who do anything for anyone.”
She said friends in the horse community are already joining forces to help the family through its loss and rebuilding.
“Currently there are plans under way to get some sort of fund started,” Payne said.
Barrick said over 30 firefighters were on the scene for several hours Sunday. Mutual aid was requested from Iberia, Mount Gilead and Marengo. Five tankers were needed on the scene to shuttle water from the intersection of Township Roads 22 and 231, where a small creek flooded with melting snow provided water to fight the blaze.
Three firefighters were injured due to the muddy conditions in which firefighters had to work, wearing heavy gear and carrying cumbersome equipment. They were treated at the scene for minor injuries received while falling.
“It was like walking around with cement on your boots all day,” Barrick said of the thick mud.
Because the new building did not yet have a driveway or grass, there was no solid ground for firetrucks close to the building.
“It was a muddy mess and that hampered us severely,” Barrick said. “The building was 100 feet off the road, so we had to park 100 feet away and lay hose.”
Firefighters had to connect lengths of hose together to make lines long enough to reach from the trucks to the fire. Barrick said one of the hoselines was 350 feet long.
“The fire was knocked down by 3:00,” Barrick said. “We spent the next 2 1/2 hours digging through everything.”
He said investigators will return to the scene over the next few days to continue the investigation into the cause of the fire, which is believed to have started in or around the northern stalls on the east side of the barn.
“At this point, we do believe it was an accidental fire,” Barrick said.
He said he hoped to release more information regarding the cause in a few days. No estimate of damages was available Sunday, but Barrick said the barn was completely destroyed.