A large fire tears through the main barn at Russell Farms

Posted 6/21/24

BETHEL, NY — In the early afternoon on Thursday, on the third day of New York’s heat advisory, a large fire tore through the main barn at Russell Farms.

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A large fire tears through the main barn at Russell Farms


BETHEL, NY — The call came over the scanner at 12:47 p.m.: “Working barn fire at Russell Farm.”

Russell Farm, originally owned by Max Yasgur, the legendary farmer who rented one of his fields for the original Woodstock Festival, is located along Route 17B, just past the intersection with County Route 115. 

For the next hour, the scanner was busy. As each minute ticked by, additional fire companies were called in to bring their tankers. It was the third day of New York’s heat advisory, and beyond getting the fire under control, extinguishing a large fire in weather over 94 degrees Fahrenheit involves making sure that firefighters in heavy turnout gear remain safe. Fire personnel from 21 companies, including companies located in Orange County and Pennsylvania, provided assistance and mutual aid. (See sidebar, page 5.)

According to published reports, the June 20 fire started with a mechanical failure of the hay conveyor machine, which was being used to stack hay in the barn. Farmhands were able to get out of the building, and the cattle were in the fields, according to White Lake Fire Chief Shane Cunningham, as reported by WJFF. Cunningham said that the White Lake Fire Company was on the scene within five minutes and immediately began putting water on the fire.

Putting out a large fire utilizing tankers takes an enormous amount of on-scene coordination. That coordination was provided by Jason Kraack, past chief and current assistant chief of the Lake Huntington Fire Company. According to a June 22 White Lake Fire Department Facebook post, Kraack “coordinated at least 16 tankers to three on-scene water sources and three different fill sites. Fill sites were located on Burr Road, at Lake Superior Park and at the White Lake fire station after there was a temporary truck malfunction at Lake Superior.” The department said Kraack’s flawless coordination kept the approximately 500,000 gallons of water used flowing for about four and a half hours straight. 

Sullivan County Fire Coordinator John Hauschild said fighting the fire was a team effort involving local EMS squads and businesses. He credited the 911 center for the outstanding job dispatching the agencies.

In a Facebook post by the White Lake  Fire Department, they thanked Hector’s Inn, Gerry at Sorella’s for the pizza, Mike with Servpro, Liberty School, and countless good Samaritans for the ice, water, and food donations.

Neighbor Kathy Agner was handing out Gatorade and water to first responders as a White Lake Ladies Auxiliary member. “It’s a very nice community that everyone pulls together and helps each other, no matter what. Everyone’s there for each other,” she said. Recalling the history of the farm, she said, “It’s a monument really.”

In a June 21 Facebook post, the Russell family thanked the community for the tremendous support they received. “A huge thank you to all of the firemen who worked through yesterday’s heat, to the first responders who made sure everyone was okay. A thank you for all the donations to keep these men and women hydrated while they fought to extinguish the fire.

“Thank you to our friends and neighbors who have offered their support and their kindness. Every encouraging word and hug has been appreciated.

“We are grateful that no one was injured. While we lost so much, our loved ones are ok and the animals are fine.

“From our family to all of you—thank you.”

According to Susan Brown Otto on the Sullivan County Post Facebook page, the original Yasgur barn burned down in 1963. That fire, she said, was caused by spontaneous combustion.

Editor's note: This article has been updated from the original, and an error has been removed.  The original story included a Facebook posting that incorrectly said the barn was rebuilt by the Russell family. The barn was in fact rebuilt in 1963 by Max Yasgur, who owned the farm until his death in 1974.

Alan Kesten, a Sullivan County coroner and past chief of the Monticello Fire Department, wrote a reflection for the River Reporter on the community's inspiring response to the fire, which you can read here:

It takes a community: A reflection by Alan Kesten

On Thursday, the Town of Bethel lost an iconic landmark.

Russell Farms had been a part of Route 17B since Woodstock. A fast-spreading hay fire destroyed the big Red Barn. Nothing stands but the three silos. Thankfully there were no injuries. 

A born-and-raised native, I have been a volunteer firefighter for 50 years. I’m second generation, and now there is a third generation in my family in the fire service. 

But this isn’t about me. This letter is about our community! 

On an oppressive hot summer day, firefighters from all over Sullivan County responded to fight this fire. We are all volunteers. I belong to the Sullivan County Special Operations Team, which provides rehab to front-line firefighters. We provide cooling stations, water and hydration, medical monitoring and so much more. We are all volunteers!

This letter is about our community. In the middle of the chaos, a woman from the neighborhood walks up with a big straw hat, pulling a black wagon with ice-cold hibiscus lemonade. A few minutes later, a minivan pulls in, opens the back with 10 cases of drinking water. These folks heard on Facebook that firefighters needed drinking water. 

The next minivan had another 10 cases. The daughter of the woman driving was making cookies at home and brought the entire batch for the firefighters.

Within 30 minutes, there were 40 cases (a mountain) of drinking water. The auxiliary from several departments on scene delivered pizza and trays of cut oranges, watermelon, grapes and granola bars. 

As volunteer firefighters, we come out 24/7/365 to keep our community safe. Today, I’m proud to be a part of the community that came out to keep us safe.

A hearty, well-deserved thank you to all those non-firefighters that came to our need on an oppressive hot summer day. We in the fire service appreciate your support.

Anyone interested in being a volunteer firefighter can get more information at joinsullivanfire.com.

Bethel, Russell Farms, Yasgur Farms, Woodstock music festival, first responders, White Lake Fire Company, Sullivan County Division of Public Safety, Kauneonga Lake Fire Department, Bethel Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Yulan Fire Department, Smallwood-Mongaup Valley Fire Department, Monticello Fire Department, Lake Huntington Fire Company, Loch Sheldrake Fire Company, Lava Fire Department, Rock Hill Fire Department, Narrowsburg Fire Department, Kathy Agner, White Lake Ladies Auxiliary, Hector's Inn, Sorella's, Servpro, Max Yasgur, Sullivan County Special Operations Team, Alan Kesten


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