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Barn fire claims dairy farm


Despite quick response, wind fans flames that destroy livelihoods

COPAKE–Fourth generation dairy farmers Nancy and Paul Miller, sister and brother, lost not only their livelihood, but their way of life when fire consumed the main dairy barn and about half their herd at Snook Hill Farm, 257 Empire Road, the afternoon of Thursday, December 17.

Fifty-two dairy animals were killed. Some farm machinery and three buildings were destroyed by the fast-moving, wind-whipped blaze.

Copake Fire Chief Randi Shadic said the fire seems to have been caused by an electrical short. Though inconclusive, the evidence that remains and eyewitness accounts are consistent with the fire starting where the electrical service was attached to the heifer barn.

The chief theorized that the high winds that day might have moved the electrical service wires around causing a short circuit that ignited the heifer barn. The way the rest of the events unfolded and based on what Ms. Miller saw is consistent with that theory, he said, noting, “We can’t eliminate that as the cause and we have no reason to believe it was anything else.”

It was shortly before 3 p.m., the herd had just been milked and Ms. Miller was in the milkhouse cleaning the pipeline milking system, when she noticed smoke blowing by between the barns, she told The Columbia Paper, December 19.

She went to see where the smoke was coming from and found the whole side of the nearby heifer barn ablaze. She ran to her house a few yards away to report the fire, but it was already too late.

Chief Shadic said firefighters arrived within seven minutes and found three buildings involved in fire.

The heifer barn, a 21-by-70-foot structure about 25 feet west of the main dairy barn was fully involved. The fire had spread to the main dairy barn, a 42-by-143-foot, green, two-story structure. A 24-by-24-foot storage garage attached to the heifer barn was also burning, according to the chief. 

Ms. Miller said she began releasing the cows from their stanchions in the dairy barn. Neighbor Roger Edelman, farm hand Chucky Lamont and her cousin, Henry “Bull” Call, who was deer hunting on the property, all helped.

Firefighters also pitched in with the evacuation of cows.

“We started to have some success–we did get some cattle out,” said the chief. But some of them turned around and went back in the burning barn. “We couldn’t go back in after them a second time,” he said.

At the same time, setting up a water supply was also a priority. Firefighters accessed water from the Roe Jan Kill, which runs through the property, just west of the house and barn complex, establishing multiple supply lines to feed the pumpers and aerial ladder truck. Firefighters fought to hold back the flames as attempts were made to get the cows out.

With the main barn engulfed by a fire that sent up dark, billowing swells of smoke visible for miles, firefighters also devoted their efforts to saving the farmhouse, 14 feet from the dairy barn, and three storage buildings, said Chief Shadic.

The fire moved quickly, fanned by strong winds. Between the wind and single-digit readings on the thermometer, firefighters had to contend with wind chill temperatures well below zero, said the chief, noting that despite the conditions and equipment freezing up, firefighters did save the house, outbuildings and about 50% of the herd.

The surviving cattle were moved to the Sommerhoff Farm on Wiltse Bridge Road in Ancram, a couple of miles away. The Sommerhoffs, who had a third generation dairy operation, stopped milking cows earlier this year.

Since the Sommerhoffs have a free-stall barn and a milking parlor, people who are familiar with that kind of a system are handling the milking, said Ms. Miller. But the cattle can’t stay there indefinitely. “We’ll have to sell them,” Ms. Miller said. “We can’t rebuild.”

In addition to the barns and cattle, the Millers lost a tractor, a manure spreader, a hay elevator, all their milking machinery, a bulk tank and about 8,000 bales of hay.

“We lost our livelihood,” she said.

Though they have insurance, the amount would never be enough to cover rebuilding costs.

And at 68, Ms. Miller doesn’t think rebuilding is an option.

In 1863, Ms. Miller’s great grandfather Adam Miller built the barn and started the farm he named Snook Hill after a man, who owned some nearby woods and whose last name was Snook, said Ms. Miller.

Her grandfather Frank and then her father, Herbert, continued the family tradition of dairy farming there. They used to have registered Holsteins and Ms. Miller’s father used to breed cows to be mostly black. It was an old breed, said Ms. Milller, and her father believed that black cows were more even-tempered, while white cows were more skittish.

Ms. Miller said she and her brother, who have worked on the farm all their lives, shared the farm work. Mr. Miller did most of the milking, while she did some field work, took care of the calves and the books.

“We have nothing left, just this house, and we almost lost it.

“The wind was really bad, it fueled the fire–just like wild fire. I never saw anything burn so fast and so hot,” she said.

As for what’s next, Ms. Miller said she aims to get things “settled and cleaned up.”

The fire demanded an aggressive response, with mutual aid called in from Ancram, Hillsdale, Craryville, Taghkanic and Churchtown and Millerton. Additional manpower was summoned from Amenia, Wassaic and Pine Plains. Chief Shadic estimated that 80 firefighters were on the scene. No injuries were reported. Firefighters cleared the scene at 1 a.m. December 18, but were back again at daylight investigating with the County Cause and Origin Team and taking care of hot spots under the hay.

The Copake Ladies Auxiliary had the “large burden of providing food and hot beverages to the firefighters.”

Copake Police were on the scene along with the Copake Highway Department, which kept the road sanded, towed out fire trucks stuck in the mud and supplied diesel fuel to fire trucks about to run out, said Chief Shadic.

Describing the fire as one of the largest in recent years, Mr. Shadic said, “big old wooden open barns are notorious for burning rapidly.” He said the livestock and the hay contributed to the complications of fighting the fire, but noted that “all resources worked well together.”

To contact Diane Valden email


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