Firefighters battling a blaze in the foothills of central Riverside County saved dozens of homes Wednesday and Thursday, but 80,600 chickens at the MCM Poultry egg farm never had a chance.
The blaze incinerated three of the farm’s gigantic chicken coops, which were packed with caged, egg-laying hens.
“When you have more than 80,000 chickens, it’s hard to get real close to any one of them, but of course we feel real bad,” said Steve Nichols, owner of the egg farm, a 46-year-old family business off a dirt road in the Badlands area between Moreno Valley and Redlands.
The fire appears to have started in one of the coops and spread quickly to the surrounding hillsides, blackening more than 1,100 acres.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection predicted full containment of the fire by Thursday night. Fire officials said the cause was unknown, but they established that it started on MCM Poultry property Wednesday afternoon.
Nichols said workers at the farm reported they first saw fire spewing from the attic of one of the coops, which have corrugated metal roofs. Spraying a fire extinguisher on the flames proved fruitless, said Nichols, who said the hens inside were cooked “like kindling.”
“There’s not even bones left,” said Peter W. Lent, Riverside County Fire emergency services coordinator. “We believe the heat and the smoke killed the chickens before the roofs collapsed on them.”
Five other coops housing the farm’s other 81,800 chickens survived the fire.
Nichols and farmworkers also scooped up at least three other chickens they believed were able to flee from the fire.
“I’m sure some of the birds did escape; they know to run from fire,” Nichols said.
Nichols estimated that the fire caused $900,000 in damage. His Riverside County farm, purchased in January, distributes commercial eggs to retailers at the going rate of 42 cents per dozen.
The loss of chickens won’t affect the local egg market, said UC Riverside poultry specialist Don Bell, who said egg prices are set at the national level.
Nichols said his farm was insured and that he planned to begin rebuilding immediately.
The loss of animal life surpassed that of a blaze that leveled a Reche Canyon farm a decade ago and killed an estimated 150 goats, said Riverside County Fire spokeswoman Becky Luther.