Seven tips worth trying to reduce risk against fire
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Barn fires spread rapidly and are not small.
Nearly two-thirds of all barn fires engulf the entire structure, which caused an estimated $28 million in property damage annually according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Most farm fires occur in summer and winter.
Lightning strikes and uncured hay quickly turn a hot summer’s night into a farmer’s worst nightmare.
During the winter months, portable heaters are the leading cause of fire in barns.
Poorly maintained stock tank heaters and heated water buckets can also be dangerous without regular maintenance.
Using damaged extension cords to power heaters or plugging too many into one power source increases the chances for a fire to start.
“I get very anxious when I see a heater being used in a barn,” said Karyn Malinowski a professor and director of Rutgers University’s Equine Science Center. “There’s too much that can catch fire, like loose hay and bedding.”
Prevention is the best method to avoiding a fire in your barn.
Here are seven tips to reduce the risk of fire on your farm.
Know your risks
Some buildings, like swine houses, are open air structures with few electrical components and is at a lower risk of fire.
Others facilities, like commercial chicken barns are very reliant on their heating/lighting and that could be a bigger issue, according to Tracy L. Vecchiarelli, P.E., a principal fire protection engineer at the National Fire Protection Association.
“Some animals create the hazard themselves, by being curious and pulling down wires or chewing on them too,” Vecchiarelli said.
Inspect electrical sources
Conduct a regular inspection of electrical systems, heating systems, and combustible storage areas to identify potential hazards.
“Often times an agricultural fire can start with something that would have been easily identified, like a frayed wire to a box fan or an worn-out extension cord,” Vecchiarelli said.
Invite the fire department
to the farm
The more information the fire department has on the farm, the easier it is for them to assist in an emergency.
Farm owners may be hesitant to have the fire department do a walk through because the owners are afraid of what the visitors might see.
However, emergency responders know the local codes and can make recommendations based on an evaluation.
“They can evaluate panel boxes that are exposed to water rather than sealed, cobwebs covering outlets and panels,” said Malinowski.
Store combustibles carefully
“The storage of combustibles is also a big part of fire safety, but it is something that can vary for each farm,” Vecchiarelli said.
The NFPA Barn Safety Checklist recommends storing oily rags in a closed, metal container away from heat.
It’s also recommended that feed, hay, straw and flammable liquids are stored away from the main barn and in separate areas.
Lighters and cigarette butts are a no brainer.
Posting a “No Smoking” sign is not enough.
There tends to be an unwritten rule that it’s ok to smoke in your own barn but not someone else’s or that it is ok in some areas, but not others.
There should be a no smoking policy in the barns and if necessary for staff, in an area with a non-flammable surface away from structures and stored hay or bedding.
Tractors can spark fires around the barn and in the fields.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension recommends routinely checking the exhaust system, including the manifold, muffler, and turbocharger on all equipment.
A visual inspection should include looking for exposed wires and signs of wear. Worn bearings, belts and chains can overheat and burst into flames.
Replacing broken or worn parts as soon as they are found is critical.
The Nebraska Forest Service reminds farmers keep an eye on trucks and vehicles too.
Defective exhaust systems and catalytic converters can become hot enough to catch dry grasses next to the barn or when parked in the barn dry hay and bedding.
Know the codes
Municipal codes for agricultural structures vary geographically and based on use. Learn the local requirements for your township.
The NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code outlines the minimum requirements for animal housing facilities, including agricultural buildings.
Review the code, which is available online (www.nfpa.org/150) and inspect your farm buildings.
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Fire prevention resources
Waiting until disaster strikes is never a good idea. Whether it’s a weather event or a fire, having an action plan saves lives—human and stock—and can help limit the amount of damage.
“When you decide on an evacuation plan, do fire drills,” said Malinowski.
This is especially important for barns with a lot of activity. For example, riding stables with numerous lesson students and clients and farms with multiple employees.
“Everyone who is involved with the barn needs to know the plan because they will be panicked,” she said. “Then you have to practice what you put down on paper.”