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Smoke rises over the field of Doug Poling’s neighbor.
Courtesy | Ron Poling

“It was so smoky that you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face.”

Local farmer Ron Poling stood watching as his barn burned down in Oct. 2021. The Hillsdale com­munity has been strug­gling with farm fires over the last several months. The most recent farm fire took place in Camden township in March.

“The dev­as­tating part was I was out in the barn with my godson and one of his friends unloading hay, and we were in the barn when it caught fire,” Poling said. “They couldn’t figure out why it caught fire.”

After the fire started, the men ran into the barn in an attempt to save the animals. 

“We got a horse out, but we lost many a donkey, and many a mule we couldn’t get out,” Poling said. “When we’d run back to get them out, just that quick the smoke made it so you couldn’t see. Because of knowing the barn and where we were at, we just looked for the front door and got out.”

Within five minutes, flames had com­pletely con­sumed the structure, according to Poling. 

“It was a really hot fire,” Poling said. “We were really thankful that we lost animals but no human casualties.”

As the fire raged, five dif­ferent fire depart­ments rushed to the scene.

“That was probably most amazing,” Poling said. “There were five fire depart­ments that showed up, I can’t tell you how many firemen.”

As word of the fire got around, the Polings’ family and friends con­verged on the site to offer help.

“The road was lined with cars,” Poling said. “The friends and family were amazing. People showed up to get the horses out of the pens and move the cattle and move the goats. I don’t even really know how many people were there.”

Doug Poling, Ron Poling’s brother, was there helping the night of the barn fire.

“Around the house, it was total chaos, because nobody knew for sure what was going on. Everybody wanted to help,” Doug Poling said. “It was raining that night, so every­thing was muddy. We were trying to get animals in and out of pasture fields, move a fence in the dark, and get them cor­ralled to get them into a trailer in the dark.”

Even­tually, the blaze had engulfed the barn to the point where it was impos­sible to save.

“I could smell the smoke from three miles away,” said the fire inspector, according to Ron Poling. “He goes, ‘This is a total loss, there’s no way I’ll be able to figure out what caused it.’” 

Fire­fighters, family, and friends arrived to fight the fire at 9 p.m. and left the scene after 4:30 a.m. the fol­lowing morning.

In the end, the flames destroyed the barn, along with much of the family’s equipment and more than 1,600 bales of hay and 500 bales of straw. 

“The hay was a total loss because, yes, I do sell the hay,” Ron Poling said.

The fire also claimed the family’s animal feed and water source, but friends have stepped up to help for the time being.

“We still have a horse over at one of our friends who is boarding it for us because it was my granddaughter’s older mare who can’t be outside all the time,” Ron Poling said.

According to Doug Poling, the com­munity offered to help the family however they could.

“The people that actually knew them stopped in and offered to help.” Doug Poling said. “People brought food, people brought water, people brought whatever they thought the family might need.”

Ron Poling said he was grateful for support from friends and family in the wake of the blaze.

“Everybody knows how much it meant to the grandkids, the son, the daughter-in-law, and us,” Ron Poling said. “I can’t say how much we appre­ciate close friends and family that were there just to help out.”

The family had never expe­ri­enced a fire like this before, Ron Poling said, but had taken the appro­priate precautions.

“My son is a vol­unteer in the fire department — around here, it’s all vol­untary. They go to enough grass fires that we do some con­trolled burns and brush piles,” Ron Poling said. “Back when I was in high school, we had a corn field that caught on fire, and it was very, very hard to put out. For­tu­nately, we haven’t had any­thing like that happen.”

For weeks, Ron Poling said he and his family wrestled with the aftermath of the barn fire.

“The first week, you couldn’t sleep, you smelled like smoke, you tasted smoke,” Ron Poling said. “I mean, this was the barn at our house.”

Aside from the per­sonal con­se­quences of the fire, Ron Poling also had to deal with inventory and insurance issues.

“The day-to-day life was quite con­fusing and hectic for a couple of weeks, just trying to figure out what burnt up and what we lost, trying to do the inventory,” Ron Poling said. “It took the insurance company until after the first of the year to reim­burse us, but I’m very happy with the insurance.”

Doug Poling said he helped his brother sort out the aftermath of the fire.

“Several days later, I was over there just trying to figure out what was what, what was worth saving and beyond saving,” Doug Poling said.

Last summer, Doug Poling and his son expe­ri­enced a fire of their own when their baler caught fire.

“My 17-year-old son asked me, ‘Hey dad, can I bale straw today?’” Doug Poling said.

When he returned to check on his son, Doug Poling said he was shocked by what he found.

“He was sitting in the middle of the field with the tractor on fire, the baler on fire, and half the field on fire. He was sitting in the tractor trying to get it away from the fire,” Doug Poling said.

As with Ron Poling’s barn fire, neighbors came running to extin­guish Doug Poling’s field fire. One neighbor brought his hose to the scene.

“The neighbor across the road, he had seen the fire, so he was over there,” Doug Poling said. “We put the fire out on the back of the tractor with the water hose.”

Fire­fighters also showed up to the scene and even­tually quenched the blaze.

“My brother’s barn fire, they had several fire depart­ments there, and they had nonstop fire trucks running water in there,” Doug Poling said. “We just had a couple four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and one engine.” 

Doug Poling esti­mated the flames con­sumed a total of 25 bales of straw, along with seven to eight acres of land.

Doug Poling said he was grateful for the weather con­di­tions at the time of this fire.

“Had the wind been blowing in the other direction or had he been driving in the other direction, it would have blown the flames up around the tractor,” Doug Poling said.

Assistant Chief Shawn Barnhart of the Wright-Waldron Fire Department said wind is often a threat to fire­fighters responding to field fires.

Friends and family have remained a con­stant support to the Poling family. 

“I had three other people call me and ask if my baler burnt up. They said, ‘Hey, if you need a baler, come use ours,’” Doug Poling said. “Our com­mu­nities have really come together in matters of crisis.”