Minimizing Fire Risk on the Farm
Flammable materials are abundant on every farm and homestead. Barn and coop fires are an unfortunately common issue, but there are a few critical things we can do to avoid a catastrophe.
For more than 15 years I’ve been serving my community as a volunteer firefighter, and over those last 15 years, I’ve seen a few too many farm fires. Fire preparedness is something that I take seriously on my farm, and I’ve unconsciously formed a few basic ground rules for managing flammable materials and the risk of fire.
Let’s first identify the materials in question here. There are the obvious fuels such as gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and propane, but there’s more. Most paint products, such as paint thinner and mineral spirits are also highly flammable. Many automotive fluids are flammable, and so are many products used in wood finishing. Don’t forget those cans of brake cleaner, WD-40, or all those other cans of ethyl-methyl bad stuff. All these and more can be found at nearly every farm, yours included.
Farming Specific Flammables
How about the more natural flammable materials? Grain dust is known to be dangerous in silos, and hay fires can spell disaster in so many ways. Staw, wood shavings, and other bedding material, albeit not as volatile as, say, gasoline, is still something that can contribute to a barn fire.
The most tragic fires I’ve seen include attached structures and livestock areas. Many old farms in New England have barns attached to the farm residence. The reasoning was, farmers could walk from house to barn and back while avoiding the snow and rain. It’s a solid theory, but when a fire takes the barn, it destroys the home too.
Additionally, most old livestock barns have haylofts above the livestock. This is quite convenient, but when that hay went up in flames, so did everything else. Most barn fires I’ve been to resulted in lost livestock, usually horses, lamas, sheep, and chickens. Barn cats are another unfortunate loss we usually see.
If you’re building on your farm and are not already committed to specific structures, here are a few thoughts to consider. You can mitigate the risk of losing everything in a disastrous fire by isolating flammable materials, preferably in separate structures.
Having a hay barn separate from your livestock barn is desirable, instead of having hay storage inside your livestock barn. Dry hay will make a small fire into an uncontrollable blaze quickly.
Don’t forget that hay that has been put away while the core moisture content is too high can cause fires also. Just like how a compost pile will heat up, wet hay will do likewise. The heat these bales produce can slowly build up until it’s so hot that the hay auto-ignites.
Tools and Tractors
Having a separate workshop or shed to store your gas-fueled tools, tractors, and farm trucks is another way to isolate flammable materials from the rest of your farm. If you find yourself in need of a garage, don’t build it as an addition to an existing structure, make it a standalone garage with a distance between your other buildings.
Are you considering building a chicken coop on the farm? Don’t add it onto an existing barn either. Chicken coop fires have been on the rise in New England, usually caused by electrical fires started by a chicken heat lamp. Either the heat lamp overloads an inadequate circuit, or the bulb heats some flammable materials, such as hay, straw, or shavings, which in turn combust.
In firefighting speak, an exposure is a surface, usually of an adjacent structure, that runs the risk of catching fire during a structure fire. When responding to a structure fire in a close suburban area, it’s common to see firefighters wetting down the siding and roofs of neighboring homes. This is to prevent the spread of fire through radiation or flying embers. The closer the structures are to each other, the higher the risk of additional fires. If you’re building a new barn, consider giving yourself some distance between structures to lower the chance of fire spreading from one barn to the next, should the worst happen.
Don’t forget that in the event of a fire, firefighters need to get some rather large trucks to the scene. The easier it is for us to drive up to your barns and other structures, the faster we can put a stop to the fire itself. A quick stop on a structure fire reduces the potential for extension (fire going from the point of origin to another section or structure) and the possibility of fire moving to another structure on your property. Maintaining a large farm road that’s clear of obstructions will help us get to where we need to go.
Flammable materials need to be treated with caution and adequately contained. Do your best to keep fluids in their original containers, or in approved and labeled containers that are meant to hold the fuel in question. Improper labeling can lead to dangerous mistakes and storage in incompatible containers can cause dangerous situations.
Cabinets For Fluids
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires commercial facilities to store their flammable materials, specifically volatile flammable liquids, in specialized cabinets. These storage cabinets are designed to stop your containers of flammable materials from contributing to a fire. The theory being, if there is a fire or flame outside the closed cabinet, the cabinet will isolate your fuels and fluids from becoming part of the problem.
Fire cabinets per OSHA regulation need to seal tightly, have a three-point latch system, be built of a reasonably thick sheet metal, and be fully enclosed. Some cabinets feature an optional vent, meant to be vented outside the building, but OSHA says this is reserved for noxious or toxic fumes and typically not necessary for standard materials.
These flammable material cabinets can be prohibitively expensive, but applying the theory of containment isn’t. Any reasonably tight metal cabinet will give you a great place to store flammable materials safely, and guard these containers of volatile fluids from sparks or open flame. If you’re storing things like tool fuel, cleaners, painting solvents, and other such things in a shop or farm garage, consider the use of a steel storage cabinet to contain these volatile fluids.
Farmers are very much a do-it-yourself sort of crowd. Farmers build their own tools, repair their broken stuff, and build their own barns. If you have the desire and ability to do so, then by all means, build your structures yourself, but hire or consult an electrician.
Faulty or old electrical systems have caused many barn fires in my area, and most were preventable. We tend to ask a lot of our barn’s receptacles, especially when we try to weld with 110-volt equipment, or supply heat to our barn with electricity. Be sure your electrical system is designed to support your intended uses.
Every farm, homestead, and home should have a pre-plan. What do you do should the worst happen? Do you have any fire evacuation procedures for your livestock? Does everyone know how to get out of a building, or where the fire extinguisher is? Is there a fire extinguisher? A solid, written pre-plan is a valuable tool you should create.
Talk To Your Fire Department
Fire departments like to be proactive. We keep a binder of pre-plans in our command vehicles for specific properties which tells us where to pull in, where the closest water source is, and other pertinent things. Ask your local department if they’d like to look at your farm, draw a fire department pre-plan, and help you identify fire threats you may not have thought of. It’s an excellent conversation to have now before anything should happen.