A deadly barn fire near Dorking, Ont. east of Listowel killed 110 veal calves on Tuesday afternoon, in a scene one firefighter described as a "ball of flames."

Rick Richardson, the fire chief of Mapleton Fire Rescue, said the firefighters were called around 1:15 p.m to respond to the fire, which had fully engulfed the barn on Wellington Road 10 just north of Wellington Road 86. 

"It was a ball of flames when we got there," said Richardson. There were four departments on the scene, including firefighters from Drayton and Moorefield which are part of Mapleton Fire Rescue, as well as Palmerston and Milverton. Over all 45 firefighters and 12 vehicles were on site. 

"There were 110 head of veal calves inside, they were all lost," said Richardson. "We concentrated on cooling down the exposures, the gas tank, the propane tank and outer building to contain it and we monitored that until the smoke clamed down last night about nine o'clock." 

Richardson explained that the animals lived on the bottom level of the barn, while hay and straw were kept on the upper level in the hay loft. The fire started in the hay loft, and Richardson says in those types of fire, the fuel is quickly consumed and then spreads to the lower level.

Unsafe to rescue calves

Richardson added that it wouldn't have been possible to safely attempt to rescue any of the animals. 

"A newer-style barn where they have more concrete and more steel and not as much combustibles in the barn or contained in the barn, we have [made] attempts to take the animals out and to keep the fire contained to an area," he said. But "when you get a big barn like that full of combustibles, it's hard to try to do a rescue or to extinguish or salvage it." 

Richardson said it's not clear yet what caused the fire, but the fire could have been caused by an electrical spark or from the hay spontaneously combusting. When damp hay is tightly packed, fermentation may occur in the hay pile and the temperature of the organic material may rise until it spontaneously bursts into flames.