published Friday, July 5th, 2013

Cause of Happy Valley Farms fire undetermined

The entrance to Happy Valley Farms.
The entrance to Happy Valley Farms.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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The owner of Happy Valley Farms in Rossville and fire investigators will never know for sure what caused a devastating blaze on June 20 that killed 35 American Saddlebred horses.

Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp said the cause of the fire will be ruled "undetermined."

Electrical engineers tried to examine the wiring but after picking through the ruins of the two large stables, they determined the structures "were too far gone to make a dead-set determination," Camp said.

Even the insurance investigator came to the conclusion that there's not enough evidence to go further with the investigation, the fire chief said.

The Rossville community and Saddlebred show industry have reached out to Happy Valley Farms owner Marion "Bit" Hutcheson, who built the farm into a show horse breeding and training powerhouse. The farm was founded by her father, the late John Hutcheson.

Residents who live on and near the farm spotted the fire about 8:45 p.m. June 20. Thick black smoke drifted skyward and flames could be seen from miles away.

Dispatchers responded to 34 calls to 911 to report the fire.

Efforts to rescue horses stabled in the barns were futile; the fire burned too intensely and quickly. Only one horse survived. There are about 100 other horses at the farm.

Investigators have estimated a $4.3 million loss between the horses and the two stables.

Camp said that in the days afterward, witnesses said they saw lightning strike, but investigators checked with the National Weather Service and were told there was no record of a strike. He also said investigators were told some employees at the farm smoked.

However, he said, "there's no way to be decisive on what happened because [the barn] was way too far gone."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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