Jennifer Holmes was milking cows at Lifeline Dairy in Victor when she noticed the blaze. It was 10:30 p.m., March 30, the warmest night that week, and Lifeline's barn was clearly already lost. Holmes alerted her husband, Ernie Harvey, and the two scrambled to save what they could.
The couple trained garden hoses on the dairy shop, hoping to keep the fire from spreading. Fire crews were on their way, but with the barn only 30 feet from the surrounding buildings, flames were already licking at the dairy's milking facility.
"It was working pretty good," Harvey recalls, "until the acetylene blew."
The barn housed Harvey's workshop, where he stored a number of propane tanks and some welding equipment. When the acetylene stores ignited, Harvey says the result was "like a blow torch." The dairy shop caught fire, but crews from Victor and Stevensville arrived in time to put it out.
"They were saying it was one of the largest structural fires in the last 10 years," Harvey says. "A real barn burner."
- Illustration by Robert Ruzingnola
Harvey says the fire likely started when a pig knocked over a heat lamp. Lifeline got lucky. The only animals lost were a sow pig and a few piglets—but none of the cows that provide the backbone for the dairy's popular line of organic milk and cheese. He and Holmes were back to work the following morning. He says he doesn't anticipate any dent in production resulting from the fire.
The financial burden will be considerable. The damage to the dairy shop and parlor was substantial enough that Lifeline will need to replace the buildings this spring. And Harvey says insurance will only cover a portion of the dairy's repairs.
Harvey thought the cleanup would be grueling. He was convinced it would take two weeks to clear away the debris. Lifeline's been around for 44 years, and Harvey says he briefly considered just throwing in the towel. But on April 7, 60 friends, neighbors and complete strangers showed up to help. Now there's nothing left but a bare concrete slab.
"We've been around a long time," Harvey says. "You get lulls like this and you think, 'I'm too tired to keep going.' That outpouring of support was like, 'Of course we have to keep going.'"