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Simple steps for avoiding the nightmare of a barn fire

Annual electrical inspections, hard-wiring equipment and good housekeeping are proven risk reducers

A barn fire can be one of the most distressing disasters on a farm — no amount of insurance can rectify the loss when livestock are killed this way.

Although there are fewer barn fires today, the pure destruction factor has never been higher. For example, Ontario had 89 barn fires from 2014 to 2018, but the average annual loss was $18.5 million (including the value of the livestock).

Why it matters: There are steps that can be taken to help prevent devastating barn fires.

“People sometimes don’t understand the impact of these events on families and communities and sectors,” said Dan Carlow, an expert in barn fires with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

In a bid to reduce the number of such fires, officials have sat down with producers to learn what can be done to lessen the risk.

“We’ve had people who have experienced a barn fire come and talk to our advisory panel about their experience, what they went through, information they could have benefited from, and what they’ve changed in the meantime. We found that was really valuable.”

That’s led to the ministry and the advisory panel (whose members are drawn from several industries) to develop barn fire prevention best management practices. The initiative seems to already be having an impact, said Carlow.

“We’re going to keep our fingers crossed but our fire numbers are down this year and the severity of barn fires is smaller — we haven’t had a big barn fire since last year or so,” he said.

“We’d like to think it’s at least partly the result of us creating an advisory panel for awareness, with more materials produced to help people get more education on the topic.”

Here are some highlights from ‘10 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Barn Fire’ (for the full list go to omafra.gov.on.ca and search for ‘barn fires’).

Hard-wire electrical equipment

By far the biggest culprit in barn fires today is electrical failure.

According to the Office of the Fire Commissioner in Alberta, mechanical or equipment failure figured in half of the 106 barn fires between 2014 and 2018 that were investigated and had a cause that could be determined. Human error involving welding, smoking materials and placement of heat sources was second with 31 verified instances.

Today’s barns tend to feature a lot more electrical components, which increases the risk of an electrical fire. One of the most important things producers can do is limit the use of temporary electrical equipment (that is equipment that is not hard-wired.)

Temporary equipment is risky because it usually requires plugging directly into an outlet using an extension cord or an external fuel source such as a standby generator. Extended use leads to wear and tear on outlets and extension cords.

“Sometimes people put in new equipment, plug it in, walk away, and never think about it again,” said Carlow. “But those things cause stress over time and need to be monitored really closely.”

His ministry recommends hard-wiring equipment such as fans and heaters while saving temporary equipment only for emergencies — and in those cases monitoring vigilantly. Other recommendations include storing extension cords outside of livestock housing areas and avoiding extension cords that are damaged or frayed.

“Make sure the house lights and outlets are up to date and waterproof where they need to be,” said Carlow. Make sure you’re not using extension cords when you should be hard-wiring equipment. I think if farmers paid particular attention to those two items we would see a lot less fires.”

Barn fires tend to occur more in January and February due to increased use of electrical and heating systems.

“The winter months put a lot of extra stress on those barns; that’s why they need extra attention at those times,” said Carlow.

Don’t underestimate housekeeping

Keeping a clean, organized barn is a simple, cost-effective way to help reduce the risk, said Carlow.

This includes removing clutter and keeping bedding, hay and other combustibles at least three metres away from electrical systems. Routinely using compressed air to clean dust and debris from fans, grain augers, and other motors is also recommended.

Knowing where to store combustible material is also key. Some materials — such as jerry cans or anything else containing liquid fuels — should be kept in a separate building away from livestock. The same goes for bedding and feed if they’re being stored for more than one week. Oily rags should be kept in a fireproof container.

“The housekeeping thing is a real issue,” said Carlow. “Farmers are really busy. They have a lot of stuff on the go and work long hours. But if we were to tell them to do one thing, it’s to spend a little extra time and make sure those housekeeping items are taken care of.”

Take hot works outside

Arc welding, cutting with torches, and grinding are common causes of fires and are particularly dangerous within farm buildings containing combustible materials or manure gases.

The best course of action? Don’t conduct those activities in a barn.

This sort of work is risky and should be done outside.
photo: Randy Drysdale, Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan

Replacing the object being welded, cut, or ground is another option. If those aren’t an option, work in a well-ventilated area of the barn where all combustible materials have been removed. Place non-combustible material (such as sheet steel or welding mats) under the work area to catch any sparks or debris. Make sure you have a minimum 10-pound ABC fire extinguisher nearby.

“Farmers can be jacks of all trades sometimes,” said Carlow. “They might do a grinding or welding activity inside a barn without thinking of the consequences. It’s one area we stress that farmers should be paying particular attention to.”

Have a safety plan

The ‘10 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Barn Fire’ fact sheet cover numerous items including electrical system inspections, making the barn environment less corrosive, fire walls and separations, heater systems and reducing risk from motorized equipment.

But the best way to capture those and other safety measures is with a fire safety plan, which summarizes ways to reduce risk and how to respond if one happens.

This would include the above practices; maintenance and inspection schedules; and contacts (fire departments, police, commodity groups, heavy equipment operators and other pertinent organizations).

Inspections of electrical systems are also key.

“We strongly encourage farmers to bring in a licensed electrician on an annual basis to do an inspection,” said Carlow.

Insurance companies sometimes require annual inspections but even if you don’t have to — do it anyway, he said.

“Farms that have those done regularly reduce their risk significantly.”

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