Fire Devastates Foxhunting Club

Three horses and 17 dogs were killed in a barn fire at Leesburg's Fairfax Hunt Club on Wednesday. Fifty-five foxhounds survived.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

It was a huntmaster's worst nightmare: On Wednesday morning, a barn fire killed three horses and 17 foxhounds at the Fairfax Hunt, a foxhunting club near Arcola.

Several hours later, dozens of surviving dogs were missing, perhaps hurt or in shock. Many had run into the woods, and their caretakers were scrambling to find them.

Suddenly, a fox ran out of the woods.

"And here come about six or eight dogs, right behind him, and just chasing the fox like what they do for a living," said Joseph Keusch, the club's joint master of foxhounds, who helped round up the dogs. "It's always comforting seeing that there is life after that."

Still, Keusch and others associated with the hunt club were reeling last week as they struggled to absorb the worst catastrophe to hit the club since it opened in 1927.

The fire killed a mother dog and her litter of nine 2-month-old puppies, who were in a stall separate from the other dogs, Keusch said. Three horses belonging to the hunt also were unable to escape, as were seven other dogs.

Hunt officials said the casualties would have been much worse if not for the actions of Kevin Palmer, the huntsman who takes care of the animals and who lives next door. He noticed the early-morning fire, which apparently spread quickly.

"When he woke up at 6:15 and looked out, everything was fine," Keusch said. "By the time he walked out with his cup of coffee at 6:45, everything was on fire."

"He literally clawed and cut through the wire, so that the dogs could get out," said Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhunting Association, which covers the United States and Canada.

Fifty-five dogs escaped, but all were found. Still, Foster said, Palmer was devastated by the loss. "His whole existence is those dogs," Foster said. "It's like your private pet, but he's got a lot more of them."

Collecting all the survivors was tricky, Keusch said, because "they were so scared to even come close to where it was still smoldering and burning." But, in the end, their training trumped their fear. "As soon as Kevin found the horn to blow, they responded to the horn."

Five hounds were hospitalized with burns, blisters and smoke inhalation. Three were released after several hours, and the other two were expected to be released Friday evening, Keusch said. Some of the injuries were scrapes incurred as the dogs squeezed through the opening in the wire fence.

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