Fire and barns do not make a good couple.
Whether it’s caused by overheated hay, a heater/heat lamp malfunction, an electrical short, lightning or a cigarette, fire can quickly overtake flammable materials in barns.
In 2020, Minnesota had six barn fires that killed over 7,000 hogs, 1,000 goats, and 200 cows, according to media reports collected by the Animal Welfare Institute. The organization strives to improve animal welfare and advocates for humane slaughter/animal research. Their reports state that from 2013-2017, 95 percent of animals killed in U.S. barn fires were chickens (2.6 million). The group reported that heating devices during the winter months were the largest cause of barn fires.
Losing property and livestock by fire takes a large emotional and economic toll, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“Rural communities face unique fire risks,” according the organization’s website. “The distance between communities and between residents within those communities results in challenges related to fire.”
To assist the local fire department, Mike Landuyt, a cattleman and former firefighter from Walnut Grove, Minn., encourages farmers to teach family members and employees what to do in case of a fire. Making sure that all family members and employees know and can recite their 911 address will help county dispatchers quickly page fire departments.
The challenge, though, is making certain the correct fire department is paged and can drive straight to the location of the fire.
Many farms face the same obstacle as does the family of Megan Schossow, MS, UMASH outreach director and center coordinator. UMASH is the Upper Midwest Ag Safety and Health Center.
Her family-of-origin lives near Winona on a farm. The farm is located in one school district, has a mail address for another town, and is assigned to another town’s fire department.
It make sense to make certain the farm has a 911 address and the appropriate signage at the end of the driveway for the fire department to see. Farmers who live or work close to a county line need to find out what county dispatch answers the phone when 911 is called.
“One preventative tool is to write down phone numbers, addresses and descriptions,” Schossow said. “Keep those visible around the farm in the machinery or in the barn, in the house and on your phone, too.”
Landuyt and Schossow both indicated that fire departments can use additional information to make wise choices when they are fighting a fire at a farm.
“It would help if there was a list of things to watch out for – depending on what the farm has. If they know where the chemicals are or the fuel is, the oil – if there are any dangers that we might not see right away,” Landuyt said.
Farmers, employees and family members all need to be aware of where flammable or chemical agents are located.
“With any business, we don’t know where the spray cans are hidden that could be potential hazards or if they have LP tanks,” Landuyt said. “We need to know if we can kill the power, because if we need to shut the power off, if we have to, we’ll shut the whole yard off.”
In the case of hog farms, shutting off the power to the entire yard may not be the best idea depending on the age of the piglets, or to maintain ventilation. Communicating to the fire department if there are separate power lines could preserve the lives of some of the livestock that are not housed in the burning barn.
Schossow added that keeping the yard free of debris and a driveway width of 12-14 feet will help fire trucks move easily. Keeping clean and neat areas around each building will also help firefighters do their job.
After a fire, accept as much help as is given you, Schossow added. Whether difficulties begin as soon as the fire is out or several weeks down the line, reach out to the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline at 833-600-2670, or text FARMSTRESS to 898211 for help making decisions.
Former firefighter Mike Landuyt retired a year ago after serving 20 years on the Walnut Grove Fire Department. The feedlot operator and past president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association has helped put out fires in towns, in ditches, on the road and on farms.
Some of those fires involved traditional barns with hay stored in the loft and livestock below. This can lead to fires if the hay becomes heated. Another concern is turning on heaters on cold days for people working in wood barns that use bedding and feed hay.
“The modern design of today’s barns with steel and concrete helps reduce the (fire) fuel load,” Landuyt said.
LP heaters or gas heaters for supplemental heat in confinement barns also have risks, he said.
Tank heaters can be dangerous from the standpoint of electrocution rather than starting fires. “The tank heater is in the water with a little bit of plastic around it, and the rest of my barn is cement and steel,” he said. “Other than melting the plastic there is nothing to burn.”
As a retired fireman, farmer and cattleman, Landuyt tries to keep equipment clean. He remembers the time birds built a nest in the exhaust manifold of the bedding tractor. That started a fire.
“Combines, tractors, buildings, anything – you greatly reduce the risk when it’s clean,” he said. Washing the combine before heading to the field reduces the risk of fire.
Schossow says there are a number of resources on fire prevention at umash.umn.edu. Just type fire into the search box and many resources will pop up.
“Farm Safety Check: Preventing Building Fires” was published in December 2020 and lists 21 items to check on the farm.
Reviewed by Kyle Koshalek from National Farm Medicine Center and Pittsville Fire Company Chief Jerry Minor, the list includes labeling flammable and combustible liquids; keeping flammable materials away from machinery; heating sources and electrical equipment; and checking the internal temperature of hay bales.
Cleaning up spilled flammable liquids, maintaining and cleaning exhaust systems, and keeping electrical outlets free from cobwebs or dust are important.
Restricting smoking to designated safe areas, making certain heat lamps are correctly placed, clean and in good shape, plus proper control of rodents may be some of the most important items to remember to keep fire away.
“In the winter, we have heaters,” Schossow said. “When you combine things like hay, bedding and dust, with things like heaters, welders and electricity, you really get this high risk for a barn fire.”
For more information, visit umash.umn.edu, or visit with your local fire department chief.
A special thank you to our local firefighters who train throughout the year. They help in times of need and show courage to strengthen those around them.