Friends rally around farmer who lost cattle and barns in blaze

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Ottawa farmer Peter Ruiter is picking up the pieces of his livelihood after a raging fire Friday destroyed three barn structures and killed 80 cattle on the Nepean farm.

“It’s a blow — that’s putting it mildly,” Ruiter said as he watched neighbours and other volunteers separate twisted steel from charred barn timbers on Monday.

The fire started at 1 p.m. Friday and burned for hours at the Blackrapids farm the Ruiters have operated on National Capital Commission Greenbelt land since 1962.

Ottawa Fire Services said no cause has been released for the fire. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs and Office of the Fire Marshal are also investigating.

Sixteen surviving Holsteins are being boarded at a neighbour’s farm, Ruiter said.

An Ottawa Fire Services investigator initial estimate of the damages was in the $1-million range. The cleanup and tipping fees alone will cost $100,000, Ruiter said.

But, for all the bad, said Ruiter, “there’s been an awful lot of good.”

Barn Fire Prince of Wales

Eighty cows died after a fire at the Blackrapids farm in Nepean on Friday, Sept. 8. (Courtesy of Ottawa Fire Services)

Kind words make ‘it a better day’

Ruiter was wide awake at 4 a.m. over the weekend and unable to sleep when he decided to open an envelope dropped off by a sympathetic neighbour the night before.

“So, I opened the card, and it said, ‘Don’t look at the rain, look for the rainbow,'” he said.

So the gregarious, well-known farmer has taken the advice and tried to stay focused on the positive.

He said he has been amazed at the outpouring of support.

“I’m having a bad day, but everybody popping in and saying a kind word makes it a better day,” he said.

“I know I’ve done things when others have [needed help],” he said. “I just didn’t think this many people would want to come out and help me.”

On Monday, volunteers laid out a lunch of meats and salads for the dozen workers like Paul Mussell who had come with their own tractors to pull apart the wreckage of Ruiter’s barns.

“Peter’s put into the community so much and touched so many lives it’s just a real honour to be here and do a small part to help clean up today,” said Mussell.

Peter Ruiter

Well-wishers stopped by Blackrapids farm on Monday to offer condolences and support to the Ruiter family. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Too early to say if barns would be rebuilt: NCC

Ruiter’s Nepean farm is one of 90 that sits on Greenbelt land owned by the NCC.

The NCC said it was too early to say if the barns would be rebuilt, but promised to work with the family on the plans.

“Peter and his family are the latest generation of Ruiters to farm this NCC property. It is a relationship that goes back decades, and the NCC is committed in doing what it can do to help Peter and his family recover,” the agency wrote in an email to CBC.

“NCC’s been behind me, so far. I’m quite happy with our first talks,” Ruiter said.

He expected the fire cleanup work to take the rest of the week.

But the loss of the cows has been upsetting, he said.

Peter Ruiter

About a dozen volunteers helped with the fire cleanup on Monday, as friends and neighbours stopped to offer condolences. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Driven back by flames

Ruiter said he tried twice to enter the barns to open the doors, but was driven back by flames. The farmer was able to save a truck and one tractor parked adjacent to one burning barn, but lost another machine and several pieces of equipment in the blaze.

On the evening of the fire, the city’s fire department made a point of commending Ruiter for not re-entering the barn. 

“This was indeed a hard decision to make as 80 head of cattle perished in this fire. However, we applaud him for making the right call and not putting himself in harm’s way,” they wrote.

A concrete pad poured earlier on this month was to have been the foundation for a modest expansion.

That concrete now lays cracked under the charred debris of fallen beams and twisted steel.

“Ironically, I hadn’t even paid for that concrete yet,” said Ruiter.