Safeguard your farm buildings against fire

Emergency plans and regular inspections are key to preventing devastating losses, says expert

Losses from a barn or equipment shed fire can easily total hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
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Although there are arguably fewer barn and shed fires on farms these days, the ones that do happen are often far more costly.

Fortunately, there are also more tools available today to prevent fires.

Fire prevention comes down to having a plan, choosing proper materials, and having regular inspections by a licensed electrician, said Dan Carlow, manager of innovation, engineering and program delivery with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

“We’re noticing here in Ontario that the main cause of barn fires relates to electrical systems so we’re encouraging farmers to very carefully inspect and manage their electrical systems on a regular basis,” he said. “The other thing we’re encouraging farmers to do is to work with their local fire departments to prepare an emergency plan.”

Fewer fires, big damage

Using his own province as an example, Carlow said that even though the number of farm fires has generally been trending downwards in recent years, the losses are going up. In 2014, the last year for which farm fire stats are available, there were 150 farm fire incidents (not limited to barn fires) creating a total loss of $28.4 million.

“The financial loss is increasing based on the value of the buildings and the value of the equipment inside the buildings,” he said. “In a newer barn you’re looking at all kinds of electronic equipment that is being lost and needing replacement. Those things are very expensive.”

Preparing an emergency plan with the guidance of local fire authorities is key to fire prevention and minimizing damage.

“The development of an emergency plan can help identify proper escape routes, ways to get animals out of the barn if possible, and the location of fire extinguishers. It can certainly improve the chances of reacting positively when a fire breaks out so everyone’s aware of what needs to be done and it can be done as quickly as possible.”

It’s important that all players are in the loop about the details of the plan, he said.

“Make sure the farm family, employees and the fire department know what’s in the plan and know how to properly execute it if or when there is a fire.”

Producers should have the electrical systems in their farm buildings inspected by a licensed electrician at least once a year, said Carlow. However, some systems may require more frequent inspections.

“It really depends on the size of the barn or structure,” he said. “If there’s complex equipment or many changes going on, twice a year can make sense.”

Best materials, technology key

A good deal of fire prevention starts at the design and building phase, so choosing proper electrical materials is crucial.

“A new build is certainly a good opportunity to think about fire prevention and is much easier than a retrofit,” said Carlow. “In terms of wiring we like to see all the wiring in conduits — it keeps the moisture away from wires. There are often gases and moist environments in barns that can cause damage to wire coatings over time.”

Although professional inspection is still crucial, there is technology that can help producers identify risk factors. One example is the new arc-fault circuit interrupter, an outlet which ceases to operate if a short is detected.

“There are all kinds of sensors available that can alert farmers to existing problems in advance before they escalate into a fire situation. We would recommend using them to check against any hot spots.”

There is also new technology for fire suppression.

“There’s a new device called a HAVEN that actually releases a dry chemical fire suppressant when a fire breaks out. There are all kinds of things on the market to help farmers and we’re encouraging them to understand what’s available and implement some of these new technologies where possible.”

Licensed electricians can help producers understand the best materials and technology to use to prevent structure fires, said Carlow.

“I know farmers are pretty handy people. A lot of them like to do their own wiring — which they can do, by the way, and have it inspected later — but for a small investment they can get a little further protection that reduces the risks down the road.”

Safe storage

Farm buildings are often full of combustible materials. Again, the local fire department can play a role in identifying the safest places to store feed and chemicals.

“In old barns you’ll see a lot of hay and straw storage. Once those things get exposed to a fire it spreads very, very quickly and then often out of control. Where possible, if feed can be stored outside or in a different location we encourage farmers to do so,” said Carlow.

There are alternate options for chemical storage available, including sheds, specialized structures, and fireproof barn sections.

“Each chemical is a little bit different. Some of them are a little more sensitive to temperature, for example, and require specific storage conditions. We’re just asking farmers to take a look at what they have and whatever they need to reduce the risk of a barn fire as part of their emergency plan.”

Even general cleanliness can play a significant role in fire prevention, said Carlow.

“We know farmers are busy and have a number of jobs to do, but keeping garbage picked up inside and outside the barn is always good advice. And a lot more farmers are heeding that advice. We would recommend that producers eliminate the combustibles from the main barn where possible or reduce the amount of combustible materials so the risk of a fire is less to begin with.”

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