In 2015 and 2016 almost 380,000 animals were killed in barn fires in Canada. This is a tragedy for the animals, the farmers, and for their communities. Canadians are horrified when they hear of animals being burned alive, with no chance to escape.
In homes, offices, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings there are systems in place to detect and extinguish fires. Unlike barn animals, people have the chance to escape.
Barns are different. They are not in cities and close to a local fire department or a nearby fire hydrant. Rural fire departments are often staffed by dedicated volunteers who, once they get the call, must go to the fire station to prepare the equipment and then travel to the farm.
Standard smoke alarms that are used in homes do not work as they get clogged with dust. The wiring and electrical equipment can be corroded by the barn environment and the wires can be chewed by rodents. Sprinkler systems can be problematic because of false alarms, lack of water pressure and freezing pipes. Clearly, the key is to prevent fires or detect them early.
Fire needs three elements – oxygen, fuel, and heat. Eliminate one of the three and there is no fire. Obviously, oxygen is not a candidate. In a barn some fuels such as gasoline or chemicals can be removed, but not all (e.g. straw bedding.) Potential ignition (or heat) sources, though, can be virtually eliminated at little or no cost to the farmer.
Electrical problems are one of the causes of barn fires. Having a licensed electrician inspect the facility (and correct the problems) on a regular basis is not only sensible, but can result in a significant decrease in insurance premiums. Some insurance companies will even pay for the inspection. Using extension cords only temporarily, putting cover plates on electrical boxes, explosion cages on light bulbs, keeping electrical equipment dust free all help to mitigate the possibility of fire. Although it is tempting to do wiring oneself, it is far safer to hire a licensed electrician.
Having a designated smoking area well away from the barn with a receptacle for smoking materials seems obvious. Having fire extinguishers in good working order at all barn entrances (plus a few extras) is another obvious one.
Leaving recently used equipment outside until it has cooled and keeping fuel away from the barn would eliminate some other sources of heat.
Ensuring the backup generator is tested regularly and has at least eight hours of fuel will keep the ventilation working and reduce the buildup of gases.
Spontaneous combustion in hay can occur when it is stored above a certain moisture content. A caramel odour or musty smell will indicate that the hay is heating. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) web site has advice on how to measure the internal temperature of hay stacks and what action to take.
If heat lamps are used they should be good quality ones and be secured as permanent equipment.
There are thermal detectors (at a reasonable cost) that will detect a temperature rise and go through a list of phone numbers until someone is alerted. They also must also be tested on a regular basis.
As with tragic accidents on the farm involving humans, awareness and diligence are keys to barn fire prevention. Good housekeeping, regular inspections, regular tests, walking around the barn and looking for potential problems all are reasonable and doable tasks to keep the barn safe from fire.
Implementing these measures would prevent loss for the farmers, and save their animals from a terrible death.
Vicki Fecteau P.Eng., Director, Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals