Fire takes out most of Klondike greenhouse

Grant Dowdell woke up at 6 a.m. Saturday morning to find his greenhouse - and livelihood - ablaze.

Grant Dowdell woke up at 6 a.m. Saturday morning to find his greenhouse – and livelihood – ablaze.

Six days later, instead of lamenting his losses, he’s marvelling at the generosity of the community where he’s been selling vegetables for decades.

Dowdell says he’s “flabbergasted” at the way people have jumped in to help after the fire took out half of the farm’s greenhouse.

An online fundraiser is nearing $10,000.

Dowdell and Karen Digby run Dowdell and Digby Farms, about 13 kilometres upstream of Dawson City on a small island in the Yukon River.

For the last 37 years the farm has been growing flowers and produce and shipping it all by boat to the mainland.

The three-acre property is off the grid. When Dowdell woke up Saturday morning to stoke the fire that keeps the 2,000-square-foot greenhouse warm, he found the structure in flames.

Fire extinguishers put out most of it. They knocked down the rest using rakes.

The bones of the greenhouse are galvanized steel, so that survived, but the shell around it is plastic.

The north half of the structure is gone.

The fire took with it the beginnings of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli, among other vegetables that would have gone on to be planted in the fields.

“What it looked like to me was that we lost probably about half of our income for the season,” Dowdell said Thursday.

But the pair are not throwing in the towel.

They’ve started replanting in the half of the greenhouse that survived.

Planting in the greenhouse always goes until late June to maintain a harvest throughout the season.

They’ll replant what vegetables they can, but customers will get their produce about four weeks late.

“I won’t have much for my wholesale customers until just about the beginning of August,” he said.

“Then we’ll have four to six weeks to sell after that.”

They’ll also probably be late to the farmer’s market that runs every summer in Dawson.

The bedding flowers are gone for the year though. There just isn’t enough time left in the season to re-grow them, he said.

Dowdell is pretty sure he knows what started the fire.

The greenhouse has two barrel heaters, one at each end.

He stacks wood next to the heaters so that at night he can come out and re-stoke it.

“That’s what I was up at 6 o’clock for. I was going to check the temperature and probably add more wood to the barrel heater,” he said.

“What caused the fire, pretty obviously, was that I had my stack of firewood stacked just too close to the barrel heater. It ignited that stack of firewood and that got the whole thing going.”

Dowdell spoke about the loss on a cellphone from the island. He took a tractor out 300 feet south of the house to the one spot that gets any reception.

The community in Dawson has rallied around the low-tech couple in a more high-tech way.

An online fundraising campaign was started on the website gofundme.com. Dawson Fire Chief Jim Regimbal, on behalf of the Dawson City Firefighters Association, created the page Tuesday.

As of this morning, 94 people had raised more than $9,800.

“(They’re) just two amazing people that have been providing the service and the produce to the community for 30-plus years,” Regimbal said. “Not only the farmers’ market and the locals but local businesses which also spreads out to various businesses throughout the Yukon,”

In 2009, Dowdell and Digby were named Yukon Farmers of the Year.

“Grant Dowdell and Karen Digby have made a tremendous contribution to Yukon’s agriculture sector and to the everyday lives of those in Dawson City,” then-Klondike MLA Steve Nordick said at the time.

With a shaky Internet connection at home, Digby said she hasn’t quite figured out how to go online to the website to thank everyone.

“Grant and I know a lot more about cabbages than we do about computers,” she said in an email last night.

Digby said the couple has seen donations and words of encouragement come in online from people they haven’t been in touch with for years.

She said she wants everyone to know how appreciative they are.

“We will get it figured out! I am currently asking around for a tech-savvy person to explain this to me.”

Dowdell called the community response “overwhelming,” especially considering how far away they are from town.

“It just makes you feel really part of a community even though you’re not really apparently in it all the time. But there’s a tremendous amount of support.”

The greenhouse wasn’t insured. “I don’t think you can get insurance out here. I mean, we’re eight miles from Dawson and no fire truck is going to come up the river,” he said.

Any money raised will help cover their lost income and replace equipment burned in the fire.

As for whether the greenhouse will be rebuilt back to its original size, Dowdell says they haven’t decided yet.

“I’m 65, and I thought well, maybe it’s time to downsize a bit. So our greenhouse is now half-size and maybe we’ll just keep it that way. We’ll see.”

The fundraiser is online at: www.gofundme.com/dowdelldigbyfarm

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com