Firefighters, passersby help prevent total loss
IMLAY TWP. — Brien and Lorraine Witkowski were rolling along on North M-53 sometime after 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon when they spotted something unusual.
The couple was making their way up from their home in Salem Twp. to a friend’s cottage in the Thumb, looking forward to a weekend getaway.
They were nearing Bowers Road when Brien noticed smoke rising into the blue summer sky. He thought someone was having a bonfire. Lorraine thought otherwise. As they passed Bowers Road, she spoke up.
“That’s not a bonfire, there’s a barn on fire,” she said.
Brien agreed to take a look. At the next opportunity to turn around, he did so and sure enough, the roof of a large, old wooden barn was smoldering.
“There was a metal roof on top of a wooden roof, and there was a lot of smoke blowing out of one end of the building,” he said.
Lorraine called 911 as Brien exited the vehicle to take a closer look.
He saw a man frantically pulling chickens out of the barn, moving them to another location. He was running back and forth, pulling out gasoline cans and a log splitter, so Brien leapt in to lend a hand.
“We pulled out a dozen or so chickens,” Brien said, unsure of the total number of birds that were saved. “I’m not sure what he pulled out of there before I got there. I just know he was flustered and anxious to get the barn cleared.”
The situation wasn’t an uncommon one for Brien, a trained firefighter and first responder. While serving on the Salem Twp. board, Brien also served as a volunteer firefighter in the township. He assured the barn’s owner he was happy to help.
“I said ‘let’s get this thing done,’” Brien says. He knew that barns could be repaired. It’s not always so when it comes to people.
Brien learned that the barn owner was burning old hay when a shift in the wind carried a pile of the smoldering debris up into the roof and caught there.
He’d been working to restore the historic building, so he was grateful to know that more help was on the way.
Indeed, Imlay City firefighters responded quickly enough to save the historic barn in the 900 block of N. Van Dyke Rd.
Imlay City Fire Capt. Scott Stone reported that firefighters were called to the location at around 4:30 p.m., where the occupant had been burning straw and debris in a burn pile in close proximity to the barn.
Stone said there was some confusion with regard to the address reported, but they were able to establish the correct location.
On scene, firefighters were quickly able to extinguish the fire and minimize damage to the 150-year-old structure.
Stone confirmed what Brien had learned.
“The occupant had been cleaning out the barn and burning debris,” he said. “When the wind shifted from east to south, some of the burning embers got between the metal and wood portions of the roof and ignited.”
Stone said firefighters were able to knock down the smoke and flames in short order, thus limiting damage to about a 10-foot-by-15-foot section of the roof.
“It was a good save, especially with the oppressively hot weather,” he said. “Kudos and thanks go out to all of the departments and firefighters who responded to the scene.”
Participating departments included the Goodland, Almont and Arcadia township fire departments, along with Imlay City firefighters.
Capt. Stone said the occupant had been using the barn to store firewood and straw and to house a number of chickens and turkeys.
He added that none of the animals were harmed by smoke or flames associated with the fire.
Stone said the barn had been in the Gass family for many years, dating back to 1926.
According to Earl Gass, the current owner is the second since the property was sold by his dad, the late Harold Gass.
The barn was acquired by Earl’s grandparents—Robert and Bessie Gass— who had put up a gas station on the opposite corner in 1927. The farm followed a few years later.
“The barns had been there a long time before that,” Earl says. “Best guess would be circa 1875.”
Earl recalls spray painting the structure around 1995, noting that it was the first time the barn had been repainted since the 1930s. His father had the steel roof installed in 1995, which covered the building’s original cedar shakes.
Earl says he’s grateful to the firefighters for their outstanding work; and to the passersby who took time to try to help.
“They did an outstanding job and it’s amazing that they were able to save this piece of local history,” he says.
Editor’s note: Staff writer Tom Wearing contributed to this report.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.