“Nothing can bring a farm to its knees in a single, decisive blow faster than a fire” says Michael Greenia, a member of the Vermont Barn Fire Prevention Task Force. In fact, he says that many farms never recover. Jenny Nelson agrees after seeing the loss of many barns and farms to fire over the last 30 years. Nelson, the agriculture policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders say, “You lose your barn, and you really think twice about whether you want to get back in farming.”
The difference between surviving a barn fire and closing up shop is often insurance. When a fire destroyed their barn this past August, the Boucher Family farm in Highgate, Vermont lost feed, seed, fertilizer, two machine shops, and thousands of pounds of meat inventory, as well as 8 pigs and 5 calves. Thanks to three separate insurance policies, the farm will recover, but in the meantime, cheese making has been suspended, and without that and the weekly market trips to Burlington, their 2015 earnings will be halved. “We’ve had to stop everything,” says Dawn Boucher.
But buying insurance isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially when times are tight. Dan and Merri Paquin of Critter Meadows Farm chose to buy winter heating fuel over insurance for their organic dairy. Says Merri, “I just figured I could pause it and pick it back up after the winter and we would be OK.” But their barn burned down one winter night, taking with it all but 28 of their 117 cows along with the meat operation the ag inspector was days from signing off on. Others farmers who are insured, find out after a barn fire that they are under-insured or that what they thought they had insured wasn’t in fact covered. That was the case for the Radtkes of Minnesota and Bruce Hennessy and Beth Whiting of Maple Wind Farm. Both recovered with the help of community support for their rebuilding efforts. But not everyone is so lucky.
Preventing Barn Fires
Insurance may help you recover, but prevention means you never have to try. With that in mind, here are some tips we collected for you so that you can make sure your barn is safe as we head into winter:
- Have a No Smoking rule in and around barns.
- Check electrical wiring. Look for fraying wires, indications of wear, or rodent damage. Have all new or suspect wiring inspected and approved by a licensed professional. Yeah, it costs money, but it’s better than the alternative!
- Make sure that heaters of any kind are properly maintained and positioned so that they won’t cause fires. (Here’s a handy design tip from Sandra Miller when you need to use heaters to keep lambs or goats warm.)
- Monitor stored hay for the early warning signs of spontaneous combustion. Watch for steam rising from bale surfaces and condensing on the roof and eves of the barn. Molds will begin to grow and you may notice an acrid, hot tobacco smell rising from the bales. Click on over to this factsheet for more about how to measure the temperature in your haystack so you’ll know if you’re in danger or not.
- Keep grass mowed short for 30 feet around your barn so that if a fire starts elsewhere it has a harder time spreading to the barn.
- Don’t weld, use propane torches, or BBQ near your barn.
- Ask your local fire department to come out and take a look around. Another set of eyes can be very helpful when it comes to finding things that are potentially barn fire hazards. Plus, if the worst should happen, having visited your place once, firefighters will be able to find you more easily.
- Invest in fire extinguishers and know how to properly place them and use them.
- Install smoke detectors. You can even find detectors that will sound the alarm in the house.
Have a Fire Evacuation Plan
When I was still living in Loveland, Colorado, a big windstorm knocked a tree down on the electrical lines running through our neighbor’s property and started a grass fire. They were gone at the time, so after calling 911, I immediately started on the plan I’d worked out in my head for what to do with pets and livestock in case of a fire. I ran to the neighbors and got their dog and put him in my house. Then I ran to my goats, put them on the leashes I had waiting by their pasture gate just for this purpose and led them to my chicken pen where they would be safe. Having thought about what to do ahead of time made it so much easier to do what needed to be done.
Likewise, if you have thought through what you can do in case of a fire emergency, you’ll be able to work faster and more safely. Start by having a meeting site for everyone on the farm so that you’ll know that everyone is safely out of the barn. Then shut off the power to the barn. If your driveway is hard to find, discuss beforehand with your family and employees who will wait by the road to guide fire trucks in.
Below are some tips for evacuating different livestock from barns, but the most important thing to remember when considering evacuation is YOUR SAFETY. If the barn’s roof is on fire, DON’T GO IN! It may collapse at anytime. If you are alone, don’t go into the barn. If something happens, no one will know where to find you. Finally, barns can fill with smoke very rapidly and if you go in, you could pass out from smoke inhalation. So protect yourselves before anything else.
Be safe and have a great winter!