DECKER HUTTERITE COLONY —Scrambling out of bed to tackle a structure fire before the break of dawn, the Decker Hutterite Colony’s approximately 130 members went through an exhausting ordeal on Monday.
"We dressed up without socks, without a shirt — just a jacket," Rev. Sam Waldner said, adding that everyone — men, women, children —jumped to action in doing whatever they could to help mitigate damages from the blaze, during which nobody was reportedly injured.
Lightning is believed to have struck the community’s mechanic shop and its attached vehicle storage bays overnight, shorting out its main electrical panel and igniting the fire, Office of the Fire Commissioner inspector Dick Harvey concluded by early afternoon, following his investigation.
A colony member discovered smoke when they came into the shop to pick up a vehicle at about 5 a.m., after which he immediately alerted others, Waldner said.
As a member of the West Central Mutual Aid District, the colony, located between Birtle and Hamiota, can draw services from as many as nine area fire departments. On Monday, 46 members from five departments responded to the community’s morning fire.
Rather than wait the approximately half-hour response time for the nearest fire department to arrive, Decker Hutterite Colony members banded together to salvage whatever they could out of the structure while they could.
"Everybody was in a frenzy," Waldner said, adding that while the men worked to get vehicles out of the building, women worked to rescue tools and other items braving what member Mark Waldner described as a "very heavy smoke" in doing so.
As the ceiling weakened and began collapsing on the vehicles they were trying to save, members gave up on salvaging items and shifted their focus on beating down the structure fire with the soot-covered fire truck they’d removed from the flaming building.
When they were about five minutes away from running out of water, the nearest fire department arrived on site and began pumping water from a nearby creek to accelerate the suppression.
From the very start, responders knew that the building’s western half was a lost cause, Miniota volunteer fire department chief Nick Young said, adding that their effort was limited to a "defensive fire attack" wherein they didn’t enter the building.
Firefighters focused on preventing the flames from spreading to the community’s water treatment plant to the west of the blaze as well as the building’s eastern half, which was separated from its flaming western half by a firewall.
While the building’s western half ended up becoming a pile of rubble, the efforts of fire department volunteers from Miniota, Hamiota, Shoal Lake, Birtle and Russell managed to save both the water treatment plant and the building’s eastern half.
Prior to firefighters’ arrival, Decker Hutterite Colony members saved most of the vehicles and some of the tools stored inside, although a few pickup trucks and a currently undetermined number of tools were lost.
By early afternoon, members stood around a pile of smouldering rubble alongside evidence of their efforts in the form of soot-covered vehicles that surrounded the former structure.
A school teacher in the community, Mark Waldner said that morning classes were cancelled as students rested from the "traumatic" experience, but were expected to make a return to class that afternoon.
Inside the break room of the community’s nearby VersaFrame Inc. metal roofing and siding plant, women from the colony served soup, stew and drinks to the volunteer firefighters.
"We’ve got to keep them fed so they can work," Donna Waldner said between waves of firefighters, adding that everyone in the communally-structured community had a role to play in tackling the day’s fire, and that serving food was one of her’s.
"They looked after us well," Miniota Volunteer Fire Department deputy chief Darryl Brown said, adding that women and kids had been delivering coffee, soup, sandwiches and other food to emergency responders throughout the morning.
Further to that, men from the community had spent their morning assisting firefighters in whatever way they required, which Brown said helped ease the workload of volunteer crews.
Birtle deputy fire chief Butch Bartram said that his department isn’t used to fires of this magnitude, which is why it was important that members and equipment from five fire departments joined the morning effort alongside community members.
Mark Walter said that everything was insured and that the community planned on rebuilding as soon as possible.
While he said that it was too early to say when a new building would be constructed, he said that he’d like to see something open by Dec. 27 so they’re able to host their annual Friends and Neighbours event, during which various area communities come together in Christian fellowship.
The annual event has been hosted in the now-levelled building since the early 1990s, so he said that it’d be nice to have a fresh space to accommodate the event.
In the meantime, he said that the community would have to manage with what they have and that their approximately 7,000 acres of wheat, canola, soybeans, barley, oats and other crops would still be sown as usual.
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