Firefighters from five counties and civilian volunteers responded to a blaze that engulfed the Fauquier Livestock Exchange in Marshall Monday night.
Their joint efforts saved most of the cattle from perishing but the building where breeders from around the region come to sell their cattle was heavily damaged.
There were about 225 head of cattle in the wooden barn at the time of the fire. Eight perished, according to Lindsay Eastham, manager of the Exchange, based on what he knew Tuesday morning. But that figure rose to 15 later in the day.
“The center part of the roof collapsed,” said Eastham, who said the fire erupted between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m.
“I heard about it at 8 and at 8:30 I was here. It was totally engulfed in flames,” he said. “Nothing like this has happened before.”
Rappahannock cattlemen use the Exchange and are among those impacted by the loss.
Eastham met with the fire marshal on Tuesday and said the fire’s cause had not yet been determined.
Also unknown is the dollar loss.
“The wooden part of the barn is gone. The south side of the concrete portion has fire damage” and there is water damage elsewhere, including to the restaurant at the Exchange, Eastham said.
Most of the cattle saved from the fire were sent to Virginia Beef in Delaplane for holding.
“I’m amazed we didn’t lose more,” Eastham said.
Cattle were rounded up all night. About 15 to 20 cattle breeders had animals at the Exchange at the time of the fire.
Eastham said he had “no idea” when the Exchange could reopen but he said he was “fairly optimistic” it will.
“A lot of people were pretty tore up” about the loss, he added.
“Tuesday is sales day for them. Monday they were shipping cattle in,” said Wayne Eastham, a “very small owner” of the Exchange and a cousin of Lindsay.
He said he lives about a mile from the Exchange and heard the fire trucks responding. “Then I heard more fire trucks and saw the sky light up. It could be seen for miles and miles.”
The first who responded worked to get the cattle out. “Cattle were running around the parking lot. I heard they were able to get them over to an adjacent park property,” Wayne Eastham said.
“Fire trucks from all over were there — Prince William, Loudoun, Warren, Rappahannock and Fauquier. There was more equipment on the site than I’d seen in years,” he added.
He said the firefighters were using inflatable pools to draw water from as well as running trucks back and forth to The Plains to carry water from hydrants there.
Traffic was blocked on Route 55 as firefighters worked the fire. The Exchange is located at 7404 John Marshall Highway (Route 55).
Wayne Eastham said the cinderblook section of the building containing offices and the sales area was still standing after the fire.
Mike Massie of Rappahannock County is a former board member of the Exchange. He went over there Tuesday morning and said the fire department was still at the scene as the investigation began.
Massie said he heard that portable cattle trailers were brought in to move the cattle away from the scene once they were rounded up.
“People started to show up to help. They had portable pens,” he said.
Most of the cattle stayed on the premises but “25 got out of the perimeter and it took half the day today to round them up. We think we got every one of them,” said Ross Poe, chairman of the Exchange’s board.
“If it were not for the farmers chipping in we would have had a real mess,” he said, explaining that nearby farmers responded to help catch the strays.
He said good Samaritans came to the scene after the fire started to help save the livestock. The first sheriff’s deputy on the scene grabbed a chainsaw to cut a hole in the barn to let them out. Farmers and other neighbors joined in with their own saws, according to another report.
As of the late afternoon on Tuesday no cause for the fire had been determined.
“We hope to rebuild. It’ll probably take a year,” Poe said. Exchange officials are waiting to hear from the insurance adjuster before taking the next steps.
Poe said the cattle taken to Virginia Beef in Delaplane would be shipped to Front Royal and then sold today (Thursday).
The fire that lit up the night sky couldn’t be missed by anyone nearby.
Joe DiLisi watched searing orange flames engulf the Exchange and struggled to understand the magnitude of the disaster unfolding before him Monday night.
He had a vantage point atop a grass embankment directly across from the Exchange.
Out on Route 55, tanker after tanker driven by volunteer firefighters dumped hundreds of gallons of water into nearby holding tanks.
DiLisi, who owns Joe’s Pizza and Subs in Marshall, found out about the fire from a customer. He immediately called Livestock Grill proprietor Kevin Whitener.
“I called him and said, ‘Kevin, the Grill’s on fire,'” DiLisi said. “He said, ‘I know!'”
Authorities said citizens meeting at the Tri-County Feeds building, located next door to the livestock exchange, were the first to notice and report the fire.
Fire and rescue personnel responded to the initial calls at 7:54 p.m. Fire engines from The Plains and Marshall arrived at virtually the same time.
The fire was easily visible when Marshall Volunteer Fire Chief Eddie Payne, a 34-year veteran, established command and quickly requested a “tanker task force.”
Under Payne’s guidance the firefighters began a coordinated attack on the blaze from inside the building. Then, the wind picked up and the fire spread.
Payne had emergency dispatchers order everyone out of the building.
Firefighters aboard ladder trucks from Warrenton and Prince William County quickly began spewing 1,000 to 1,200 gallons of water per minute onto the flames.
Meanwhile, countless farmers hauling large livestock trailers braved roads packed with emergency vehicles to try and corral the cattle initially freed by citizens and two Fauquier County deputies.
“The Sheriff’s Office was here first and the deputies acted very quickly and professionally using chainsaws to cut the gates so the cattle could escape,” Payne said.
The only person injured was a firefighter who hurt his knee. He was taken to Fauquier Hospital, where he was treated and released, fire officials said.
Firefighters finally got the blaze under control around 11:30 p.m., but remained on scene to douse any “hot spots” until 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“I’ve been fighting fires for 34 years and this was the worst, quickest spreading fire I ever dealt with,” Payne said.
The Fauquier Times-Democrat’s Alexandra Bogdanovic also contributed to this story.