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Fire at London's Storybook Gardens destroys livestock barn

By Jennifer O'Brien, The London Free Press

Old MacDonald had a farm.

But now it’s gone, the barn ravaged by fire.

And officials say the Storybook Gardens barn animals transferred together to a London-area farm may be gone for good as well.

“We might not build a new barn. We might take that space and do something else,” said Bill Coxhead, city manager of parks and recreation.

“This is certainly tragic,” he said of the loss of the Old MacDonald’s Barn, which has been a part of Storybook Gardens since the theme park opened in 1958.

Firefighters say the cause of the blaze will go down as “undetermined,” common with barn fires.

“There is absolutely no way to pin it down,” said fire prevention inspector Brent Smith. “It could be electrical, it could be hay, it could be human activity,” he said, adding the fire is not considered suspicious.

Smith said firefighters are estimating the damage — the barn was demolished — at about $80,000.

All 12 animals — four rabbits, three donkeys, three sheep, two goats, two chickens and a rooster — living in the barn were whisked to safety by Storybook groundskeeper Tom Hudeckie and firefighters.

A shaken Hudeckie told reporters Tuesday that he caught a “slight whiff of smoke” when he stepped into the barn to tend to the animals just after 8 a.m.

He raced up to the loft, where the hay is kept, and found it filled with dark smoke.

Hudeckie cut the power to the barn, called 911 and began coaxing the frazzled animals out.

Firefighters helped Hudeckie drag the animals out of the barn Tuesday and battled the stubborn blaze, which was fuelled by dry wood and hay.

The fire got big fast.

The blaze sent plumes of smoke over west London as emergency workers, media and city staff raced to the scene.

“It’s pretty sad,” said Hudeckie, who’s been at Storybook for nearly 15 years. “She’s had a lot of history

. . . a lot of animals lived there over the years.”

While city officials emphasized the good news — nobody was injured and all animals were safe — there was sadness in the air Tuesday.

“We are turning our heads to losing the barn today. We are just coming to grips with that,” said Coxhead, whose kids and grandkids have enjoyed the park. “But out of every loss comes a new opportunity. We’ll have to think hard about whether the animals will return.”

Last year, 127,000 people visited the theme park, putting attendance up 9% over the previous three years, said staff. But while visiting the farm animals housed in the barn has remained “part of the attraction,” it is no longer a main attraction.

Coxhead said the park’s splash pad and other play areas, including Pirate Island, are the most popular attractions with today’s families.

Opened in 1958, Storybook was home to a variety of zoo and exotic animals until 2012, when the last three seals were shipped off to St. Louis. They all died. Since then, only domestic animals remained at the park.

Within hours after the blaze, city staff had found an area farmer to take the animals.

“They all went together,” said Coxhead. “That’s always good because they are kind of like buds.

jennifer.obrien@sunmedia.ca

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WHAT OTHERS SAID

“I think there’s definitely a nostalgia, and something that resonates with a lot of people is memories they have of Storybook Gardens. We’ve got to make sure it’s sustainable.” — Ward 3 Coun. Mo Salih

“There are opportunities here to see what can be done with that space. It might look the same, or there are other opportunities to pursue, but now administration is focused on dealing with the tragedy.” — Ward 7 Coun. Josh Morgan, chairperson of city council’s community and protective services committee, when asked if the barn should be rebuilt

 

TIMELINE

1958: Storybook Gardens opens to the public, but three days before the grand opening, Slippery the Sea Lion escapes into the Thames River. Slippery is captured 10 days later in Sandusky, Ohio.

2003: City spent $7 million to update Storybook.

2008: City council approves closing of Storybook zoo as part of a new business plan.

2012: Two of three remaining seals (Peanut and Atlantis) die en route to St. Louis, and third (Cri Cri) dies at Indianapolis Zoo. No remaining exotic animals at Storybook.

2013: Storybook launches its first full season without exotic zoo animals and vows to focus on interactive play features, including a bouncy pad.

BY THE NUMBERS

127,000: visitors in 2014 (up from 120,000 average of recent years)

50-55%: out-of-town visitors: 50-55%

8.1: size in hectares

50+ : attractions

BALANCING THE BOOKS

Annual budget: $1,416,452

2014: With revenues of $1,363,958, needed $52,494 from city hall to balance its books.

2013: Needed a $46,000 taxpayer subsidy


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