The call that every farmer dreads came on July 18 when the Giroux family was taking a rare moment together off the farm. Todd Giroux, and his parents, Joe and Carolyn, were at the Clinton County Fair, of which Joe is president. They were sitting high in the grandstand watching the opening ceremonies.
“My dad noticed smoke in the distance and we wondered for a minute if it could be our farm, but I thought it was the wrong direction,” Todd recalls, “Then three minutes later my phone started ringing.”
By the time Todd got home to the 50-year-old family farm he runs with his parents in Beekmantown near Plattsburgh, New York, “There were firemen already everywhere, people everywhere, cows everywhere,” he says. Todd believes the final count on fire departments who answered the call was 42 from New York, Vermont and Quebec. So much water was needed, Todd says, that the city of Plattsburgh was low on water after the event.
“The fire fighters were great, just doing everything they could to get the animals out,” Todd says of the Beekmantown Fire Department who were first on the scene. “We know a lot of them. We’d recently taken cheese over to the fire house to say thanks. They were busting their butts to do their job in the heat and flames. Even in the middle of all that, they’d walk by and say how sorry they were. As hard as it was, it was nice to see a face you know.” Eventually, he says, “I had to ask everyone to get out. We wanted to save the animals, but a human life is a whole ’nother story.”
Of the family’s five kids, Todd is the one who knew that dairy farming was for him. He and his wife, Vicki, love raising their daughter, Abby, on the farm. “I never saw myself doing anything else,” he says. “Everyone talks about their job, but this is a life.” But even though they are off doing other things, all the siblings came as soon as they could to help and offer support. “Everyone was there showing they cared,” Todd says.
In addition, neighbors and fellow farmers did everything they could. The barn, dating back to the 1940s, had been beyond saving. “A good family friend who has an excavator showed up and helped tear down the rest of the barn,” he says. “That helped a lot. It was sad to watch, but it worked. Otherwise it would have burned for days.”
After every ember was finally extinguished, the grim reality hit. Clean-up after a fire is a major undertaking, Todd notes. The fire department also continued to help with insurance issues. “They’re just a bunch of stand-up people,” Todd says.
The farm had lost half of its cows, many of the milkers. The remaining cows were understandably spooked and confused. The morning after, Todd says, “When we were ready to move the cows, 15 or 20 farmers and friends appeared with trucks and trailers to help.” Luckily, Todd’s uncles, who farm just up the road, had recently sold their herd and the Girouxs were able to move the remaining cows quickly to that barn and continue to milk.
Todd is busy this fall bringing in corn and doing some custom cropping for other farmers. The milking herd of 35 is less than half of its pre-fire size, but there are 50 young cows in the wings. The daily routine is reassuring to both the animals and the farmer. “It keeps you sane,” he says simply. He’s also working on plans for a new barn. There was never a question, he says, that he was going to keep farming. After the heartbreak, it’s time to find the silver lining. “There are not many chances in life that you really get to start over,” Todd says.
This year’s Fire Prevention Week is October 8-14, but, of course, every week should be fire prevention week. See this post for fire prevention tips from Epsom, New Hampshire co-op member-farmer Stew Yeaton who is also fire chief for his local fire department.
The National Fire Protection Association also offers these helpful—and potentially life-saving in-home and in public—tips.