Costly losses in fire

HUBBARD LAKE – For the second time in seven years, disaster struck an Alpena County dairy farmer and his family. Tom Zbytowski was working at his dairy farm on Borke Road Thursday when it caught fire, injuring him and killing 37 calves, family members said.

Despite burns to his face and ears, Zbytowski was busy setting up his operation Friday at another farm about 10 miles away owned by his brother, Chuck Zbytowski.

Left behind in a mobile home on the farm was his wife, Judy, step-daughter, Charlene Olsen, and granddaughter, Lily, who had lined her collection of dolls up to watch TV.

“Every seven years we’ve had back luck,” Judy said as she rested in a recliner for a few moments.

Around 2006, she can’t remember the date exactly, a tornado cut through their 80-acre parcel, which is in the middle of a clearing. When they emerged from the basement of their home, the upper floors were gone, and dozens of cattle had been fatally injured.

“You’ve got to keep going. You don’t give up,” Judy said. “Farm families stick together. Tom’s got 18 brothers and sisters, and his father is 94 and still drives a tractor.”

The fire started at about 4 p.m. Thursday when Tom was using a skid steer to load large, round bales of hay into the barn, Judy said. When the vehicle backfired, it ignited some of the dry grasses.

Tom was able to remove one bale, but a second bale spread the fire to the building and the situation spiraled out of control, leaving Tom burned on his face and ears, she said.

Judy said her husband did not have a cell phone with him, so he ran to their home in shock, but couldn’t figure out how to use the landline there. So he drove to a neighbor’s home to notify authorities.

While he was gone, the fire killed the calves trapped in the building. However, the dairy cows were out of harm’s way, Judy said.

At about the same time, Olsen was driving her daughter home from school, when the 8-year-old spotted smoke in the sky and predicted it was her grandfather’s farm.

Judy, who works as a care provider, was called at work and rushed home to help, as did Tom’s son, Brian Zbytowski, other family members and neighbors.

“Brian’s wife, Chanda, and their daughter, Amy, were here, chasing cows and getting them all in the other barn,” Judy said. “You had two nurses out there chasing cows.”

Meanwhile, firefighters from Hubbard Lake and Sanborn Township arrived and extinguished the fire by night fall.

Refusing an ambulance ride, Judy drove Tom to Alpena Regional Medical Center where emergency room Dr. John Lightfoot treated him for burns. Then Tom was back out trying to rig up a milking system at his brother’s on Friday, while neighbors, with the permission of the cattle inspector, moved the herd to the new location, Judy said.

On Friday afternoon, all that was left of the family operation was a twisted pile of steel crushing down on a burned-out tractor, pipes, wires and foundation blocks. The fire also destroyed the 12-stall milking parlor, the milking equipment, the stainless steel storage tank, and 60 baby chicks in an incubator.

“Every tool he’s had since he was little was in that barn,” she said.

“We don’t know what the next step is,” Judy said.

She also doesn’t know if her husband had insurance on the milking operation. Premiums skyrocketed after the tornado.

However, there still was work to be done and by 5 p.m. that afternoon, Tom was planning to be milking 15 cows at his brother’s farm so they wouldn’t get sick or dry up, she said.

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.