After Mathias barn burns, neighbours rally to help

All that remains of the Mathias barn. VOICE PHOTO

BY VOICE STAFF

Last Monday morning, Beth Secord, who owns and operates Mathias Farms with her brother Tom Mathias, was in Welland when she received a phone call: one of their barns was on fire. Seeing smoke, a neighbour poked his head inside the barn, near the corner of Effingham Street and Metler Road, and found a whole wall in flames.

“There was an extinguisher there, but the fire was too big and it was too late,” said Secord, as she sat in her kitchen a few days later, looking out at where the barn had been.

“My neighbour’s wife called 911 as he was looking. By the time I got here, it was all in flames.”

Secord said that a cause of electrical fatigue has been identified, and that no one is at fault.

“It’s not something that we could have seen,” she said.

The absence of blame has not made coping with the situation any easier.

“We had almost everything in there,” said Secord of the barn, which housed most of the farm’s machinery, including five tractors, a combine, sorting materials, tools, and other supplies.

“Every day I think of something else that’s missing. Pretty much all we have left for the farm are ladders.”

Secord said that while they are trying to take things one day at a time, the re-building process has been laid out to her, and “it isn’t pretty. Insurance will maybe cover half. So we can get half a barn, half a tractor, half of what we need to farm come the spring.”

To cover what insurance will not, Secord is hoping for support from the community.

“It’s already been unbelievable. Unbelievable—I’m really trying not to cry,” she said as her eyes grew watery. “But you really see what friends you have.”

By Wednesday evening, just two days after the fire, some neighbours and friends had already set up a GoFundMe page for the farm.

Mary Duncan, who lives nearby and is part of the effort to fundraise for the farm, said that at Christmastime she and her husband are always looking for an organization to support, instead of “adults buying adults things they don’t need.” They were in the middle of this search last week, Duncan said, when they heard about the fire.

“We’ve found who we’re going to support. They’re such good people, and we want to do anything that we can for them.”

In addition to the GoFundMe page, the farm has also posted a list of the tools lost in the fire.

“The barn was Tommy’s workshop too, and he had everything there. We never had to go to the hardware store. How do you replace decades worth of stuff? You can’t just go to Canadian Tire and say, ‘I’ll take one of everything.’”

Secord and her brother have operated the farm since 1982, but it has been in the family since their parents bought it in 1952, and the two grew up working on it.

“Our parents always taught us to be so independent,” said Secord. “But we can’t face this alone.”

In the days immediately following the fire, Secord says that nearby residents and farmers immediately came forward to help—and she learned a lot about her brother when they did.

“So many people said, ‘Oh, Tom roto-tilled our garden, and he wouldn’t take any money,’ or, ‘Tom fixed this, or Tom fixed that.’ I knew that he’s always helped within the distance that he can drive the tractor, but still. He’ll never say no—and then he’ll never say anything about it after.”

Since the barn also contained the water pump for the property (Secord and her husband live in one house, and Tom lives in half of the other, part of which is also rented out), a neighbour brought them a temporary fix so that they would have water.

“And just simple stuff, too, like food,” she said. “You think: ‘I have a kitchen, I can cook.’ But I just don’t have time. I’ve been on the phone with the insurance, with the clean-up companies. There’s no time.”

Meanwhile, Secord has been trying to ensure that her brother can keep working, since there are still soy beans to be harvested. “We had two old tractors survive,” she said. “But we have no air compressor for the tires, or any tools to fix anything. Even if someone lends us a compressor, there’s no where to plug it in. And if it rains, there’s no where to put it to protect it.”

Still, Secord said that her brother has continued to harvest the soy, even if Thursday’s rain made combining that day impossible.

“He’s a working machine,” said Secord. “He’s sixty-five years old, and he still is so strong and works so much. There are some stories about him that are just unbelievable. One time, the grain bin was on the lane by a hill, and the wooden axle snapped, tipping all of the soy beans out down the hill. He wouldn’t let me rent a vacuum pump to pick them up. He took a grain shovel and stood out there for six hours shovelling four tons of beans up the hill, and then up into the bin. The vacuum was only going to cost $250, but he wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘By the time they’d get here, I’d be done.’ And he did it all.”

On Friday morning, calls continued to come into Secord’s home from friends asking to see how things were going. One woman was phoning for the first time, and Secord sighed deeply as she explained the story again, concluding by saying that they were sleeping better. When she’d hung up, Secord smiled. “She called all the way from BC.”

Secord kept emphasizing the important of the support from the community.

“We need to have some sort of plan, or strategy for fundraising, but we’re too focussed on taking things one day at a time. The only way that I can handle it is if it’s in small bits. So our friends Vic and Miriam have organized the GoFundMe, and everyone knows to look out for used tractors and used equipment for us, while we look after the clean-up here.”

She looked out her kitchen window to where a crew was working through the wreckage.

“We’re hoping to have it cleaned up by Christmas. I don’t really want to be looking at that at Christmas.”

The clean-up has advanced past the environmental containment stage, which was successful, and now comes deciding what, if anything, can be salvaged and what can be disposed of.

Walking amid the charred ruins, where there was still a strong odor of burning, Secord pointed to her brother’s workbench, warped by the heat. Piles of wrenches lay on the ground, most of them warped as well. One bunch, evidently stored in some sort of plastic, were fused together at one end and poked out like the quills on a porcupine.

Back behind where the barn had stood was a big yellow excavator.

“That’s not ours,” said Secord. “The Duffins brought that over so that things could be moved around and the fire department could put water on all the covered parts that were still on fire or smoking.”

She pointed to the ruins, and to the husks of tractors visible in the debris.

“It just picked those up and moved them around like they were toys—like they were nothing at all.”

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