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How to reduce the risk of a barn fire

How to reduce the risk of a barn fire

Using these best management practices will reduce the risk of a fire occurring.

By Andrew Joseph, Farms.com; Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

In mid-February of 2023, a fire broke out at an Olymel finishing barn near Sturgis, Saskatchewan killing some 10,000 pigs.

In mid-April of this year, a dairy farm fire in Dimmitt, Texas saw fire kill 18-19,000 cows, the deadliest barn fire on record in the US.

Over the past decade in the US alone, some 6.5 million farm animals have died in fires—mostly poultry.

Yes, sometimes stuff happens, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to ensure it doesn’t occur.

This writer has had a house fire, and although he, his family, and animals were all safe—as was his book and comic book collection—the fire claimed a fair chunk of the house, and thus a fair chunk of his past.

While not all fires can be avoided—the likelihood of occurring can greatly be reduced by following the 10 best management practices provided here.     
Even though it was published five years ago by the provincial government of Ontario, it offers good advice to protect you, your animals, and your business from barn fires. Although the information was designed specifically for Ontario producers, you know you can adapt it for your State, Province, or Country.

Oh, and just like how it is recommended a home should have a fire extinguisher in working order, so too should you have fire extinguishers handy in every facility—multiple if the place is large—and always ensure the fire extinguisher is kept up-to-date with maintenance checks.

It is suggested that 10-lb ABC fire extinguishers be nearby: Class A for trash, wood, and paper; Class B for liquids and gases; Class C for energized electrical sources.

However, depending on your locale, check to see which type of fire extinguisher is recommended.

10 Ways to Reduce the Risk of a Barn Fire

  1. Housekeeping – Keep all areas free of combustible objects. We know most of us do our best with our homes to observe even a modicum of neatness—though more than likely we do a lot of cleaning up just before company arrives. Unfortunately, that level of tidiness has to be taken up a notch or two when it comes to our barns. It means clutter, bedding, hay, cobwebs and dust, and even grass around a barn that could become dried grass and a possible source of combustion. Oh, and no smoking anywhere near a barn.
  2. Limit Temporary Electricals – To do that, you need to know just what temporary electrical equipment is. It’s any equipment that is NOT hard-wired into an electrical system. It is any equipment that can be plugged into an outlet using an extension cord, or it’s equipment powered from an external fuel source like a standby generator.  When was the last time you looked at the plug and outlet for your television or your coffeemaker, or your home computer? Are the wires still in good shape? Are there any splits exposing the internal wires? Common sense tells you NOT to use frayed or damaged extension cords or power bars. Go get a new one. Only use temporary electrical equipment in an emergency. Everything else should be hard-wired into your system. Monitor/check up on any temporary equipment being used.
  3. Inspect and Maintain Permanent Electrical Systems. Just because something is permanent doesn’t mean it couldn’t use some regularly scheduled upkeep or maintenance. Within your livestock barn(s), the combination of humidity, and corrosive gases generated by the animals, combined with manure storage, all have the means to degrade your electrical system. Make sure such electrical equipment is placed within a conduit and junction boxes to avoid rodents. But really, inspect regularly with a thermal camera to see what equipment is overheating and needs servicing/replacing. Use arc fault-protected equipment. Ventilation – the barn needs proper ventilation—even if no animals are present—to avoid humid, corrosive, and or explosive environments.
  4. Work Safer when Hot Working. Hot working is the use of arc welding, cutting with torches, or grinding. This writer recalls watching his father do some welding on some plumbing when the insulation caught fire. While he was pretty sure he put it out, he still called the fire department to make sure. Now, we are sure farmers are jack-of-all-trades like the writer’s computer programmer father is/was, but you still need to 1) work in a better-ventilated area; 2) if not, remove possible combustion points; add ventilation; fire extinguisher should be handy. Know the number for 9-1-1.
  5. Do a Risk Reduction Assessment with an Insurance Provider or Fire Department – Not sure if what you have is safe enough? Many insurance companies and fire departments will come to your farm and provide an on-site assessment. Call and find out if yours will. They will tell you what additional information you can provide ahead of time, and when it’s all said and done they should go over with you your options to resolve any issues. Then, not only MAKE a plan to resolve but do it.
  6. Create a Fire Safety Plan – We all know that fire is bad, so what can you do to make living a safe life even safer? A Fire Safety Plan involves having and maintaining fire prevention equipment—such as fire extinguishers; checking the working order of fire doors; fire alarm testing 2x a year; inspecting fire exit signage; as well, and identifying the risk elements on your farm—points 1-4 above. Have a list of contacts in case of a fire—and make sure specific employees have this list and act on it. The list could include standard emergency services; owners of animals kept on your farm; Commodity Groups—Ontario Pork, or Dairy Farmers of Ontario, etc.; Spills Action Centre; deadstock operators. You hope you never have to use it, but it’s always nice to know you have it when you need it.
  7. Inspection – Just because you have it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need checking up on. Inspect and maintain firewalls, fire separations, and attic fire stops. Ensure spaces between wiring (for example) and firewall, are caulked and or sealed with fire-retardant-rated materials. 
  8. Maintenance – of all heaters. Improperly installed or maintained heaters are a common cause of barn fires. Avoid open flame sources; ensure natural gas and propane-fired heating appliances are installed up to code. Inspect heat shields for damage often; suspend heaters above combustibles such as bedding; Suspend heaters using non-combustibles such as chain, not rope.
  9. Keep your Motorized Equipment Out of the Animal Barn – sure it’s handy to keep equipment nearby, but motorized equipment still gives off heat after use, so why risk a fire? Keep it in a separate barn. If it’s got livestock in it, no matter what, it’s a livestock barn. Keep motorized equipment in a separate facility/barn/shed. In that separate area, ensure that there is proper ventilation. Perform all maintenance work on it in an area separate from livestock.
  10. Store Combustibles in a Separate Physical Area – Again, you want to eliminate the chance of a fire starting so keep combustibles in a designated location away from livestock, just like you wouldn’t keep oily rags next to a furnace in the house. It’s common sense. Keep oily rags in a fire-proof container—and keep it in a non-livestock facility.

Most of the 10 best management practices denoted here are common sense things—but only if they are thought of. Your takeaway from all of this? Keep things neat and tidy. Make sure you create a fire prevention plan, and ensure your employees are aware of it and follow it. Perform your own fire maintenance procedures. Ask for advice from professionals regarding a fire assessment.


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