Barn fire kills at least 21 cows near Fort Atkinson
A fire destroyed a dairy barn and killed at least 21 cows about six miles northwest of Fort Atkinson Saturday.
The Fort Atkinson Fire Department was first alerted to the blaze at N3726 Ehrke Road in the town of Oakland at 2:57 p.m., Lt. Dion Brown said.
Chief Michael Reel said 13 Jefferson County fire agencies plus 4 additional agencies from Rock County were called in to help fight the blaze, which they fought until just after 10 p.m.
No people were injured, Reel said.
Twenty-one cows â€” all Holsteins except for one Jersey â€” were confirmed to have been killed by the fire as of Sunday afternoon, although officials expected to find more remains as the investigation progressed.
The owner, Bill Ehrke, said 12 to 15 of the 35 to 40 cows kept in the barn were miraculously saved when a portion of the ceiling collapsed, shielding them for hours from the heat, smoke and flames.
“That was pretty amazing that they even survived that,” Ehrke said.
One of those saved was a prized 2-year-old show cow who had most recently taken a first place award at the World Dairy Expo, he said.
The surviving cattle were being tended by veterinarians but most should be OK, Ehrke said. Only one or two looked to him to have been burned.
Reel said firefighters did everything they could to save the cattle, but were facing extreme difficulties in battling the blaze due to the cold temperatures, the piles of snow and ice, the need to truck in water to such a remote location, the need for extra manpower and the need to keep a growing number of onlookers safely out of the way.
He said firefighters were unable to enter the barn to try to save the cattle, which were kept in stanchions on the ground floor, because of a large number of hay bales and a skid steer that were on the second floor â€” which was threatening to collapse.
“(This fire) ranks right up there (with) some of the bigger ones” Reel has ever faced, he said.
Firefighters were rotated on a three- or four-hour schedule to avoid complications from the cold. The need for additional manpower was the reason so many fire departments were asked to come help, Reel said.
Reel said 285,500 gallons of water â€” all of which had to be brought to the scene â€” were pumped on the fire. Firefighters tried to simultaneously focus water streams on where they knew the cows to be in an effort to save as many as they could while also trying to keep the fire from jumping to nearby buildings, he said.
The 140-foot-long barn was a total loss. An approximately 2,000-square-foot building attached to the barn was saved but suffered smoke and water damage.
Ehrke said he was returning from a vacation when he got the news. He said he stepped off a plane at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to receive a phone message that his barn was on fire.
“By the time I got the message it was one hour into the fire, and by the time I got home it was two to three hours later, so it was pretty burned down by then,” Ehrke said.
Investigators did not have an estimated dollar value of the loss nor did they know the cause of the blaze as of Sunday afternoon.
“It’s going to be a high dollar loss, there’s no doubt about that,” Reel said.
Ehrke has operated his Ehrke Holsteins company at that location since 1966, he said. The farm raises cattle and some grain on 500 acres in the area, some of which is rented.
[Editor’s note 12:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this story quoted Lt. Dion Brown saying 34 cows died in the fire. Chief Michael Reel said about 35 cows were kept in the barn, but only 21 were confirmed to have died as of Sunday afternoon.]