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Barn burns, suspect caught

A 20-year-old River Falls man was arrested for a suspicious fire that destroyed a 30-by-75 foot storage shed filled with about 400 large bales of high-quality hay at the UW-River Falls Lab Farm #1 after midnight Friday.

Said Police Chief Roger Leque: "We believe this was a case of arson."

Christopher D. Pixley, 437 Kennedy St. was arrested in the early Friday morning house after the incident. He was taken to county jail in Ellsworth.

Leque said police are still gathering information before sending a report to the district attorney.

Because the case is still under investigation, Leque offered no further details about how or where Pixley was arrested, and if there were other suspects.

River Falls firefighters were called to the blaze off Cemetery Road about 1:30 a.m. They remained until after dawn.

Leque said police were contacted by the Pierce County Sheriff's dispatcher who said the shed was engulfed by flames.

A preliminary damage estimate, Leque said, was: $64,000 for the building and $28,000 for the hay.

Acting River Falls Fire Chief Chris Cernohous said local contractor Dick Godden was called sometime after 2 a.m. to bring a backhoe and assist with pulling burning bales from the steel-framed shed.

Godden was still on the scene at 5:30 a.m., actively working alongside eight firefighters with two pumpers and two tankers.

Godden would drive his cab-equipped backhoe into the cloud of smoke, scoop up a smoldering bale which would ignite upon exposure to air.

He would then back up, allowing firefighters to soak the flaming bale before he'd dump it onto a growing pile at the center of the university compound.

The hay will likely continue to smolder for days, said the chief.

Cernohous said 20-25 firefighters responded to the initial call. The blaze was confined to the one building, located northeast of the horse arena on the lab farm.

No other departments were involved but Cernohous said local fire crews used "thousands of gallons" of water from a city hydrant located about 100 yards from the burning building.

A farm employee said the high-quality hay, harvested over the past few weeks, would have been used to feed university-owned horses.