by Merritt Clifton
MONTREAL––A June 9, 2015 barn fire that killed more than 200 dairy cows near St. Denis sur-Richelieu, Quebec lent emphasis to the ongoing efforts of Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals to persuade the National Farm Animal Care Council to adopt fire safety standards, and for me rekindled memories of how barn fire safety came to be of intense longtime personal concern.
“The fire began around 10 p.m. in a barn that housed about 250 animals. Barely a dozen of the cows survived,” reported CBC/Radio Canada. “Firefighters from several neighboring communities were called in to help battle the fire. No humans were injured. The cause of the fire does not appear to be suspicious.”
Fourth fire to make headlines in 2015
The St. Denis sur Richelieu barn fire was the fourth to make Canadian national news feeds in 2015, but barn fires tend to occur much more frequently than they make news, making national headlines only on slow news days when spectacular video becomes available.
In March, traditionally a slow news month, 134 cows burned to death in a barn fire northeast of Cornwall, Ontario; 125 animals, including 65 dairy cows, died in a barn fire near St. Fabien, Quebec; and 1,500 pigs died in a farrowing barn fire near Kola, Manitoba.
“While the issue of barn fires has not historically been under National Farm Animal Care Council purview,” the CETFA web site adds, “the Council has developed codes for other overarching issues such as transport.
“Better codes of practice”
“Establishing better codes of practice regarding fire prevention and suppression has the potential to affect the lives of all of Canada’s 700 million farmed animals,” the CETFA site continues. “The animals confined [in barns], often additionally restricted inside cages or stalls, experience terror and suffer unimaginable pain as they attempt to escape while fire rages inside their building. Hundreds to thousands of animals may burn alive in a single barn fire.
“Animals who survive often suffer excruciating burns and respiratory difficulties, yet veterinarians are generally not called,” CETFA alleges, “or if they are called, are not equipped to deal with such large numbers of animals. As a result, the animals may be left to suffer for hours or even days,” and “may even be taken to slaughter, subjected to the rigors of transport while injured or burned.”
To avoid this, CETFA urges fire departments to develop barn fire response plans, with local veterinarians, “to include measures to remove animals as quickly as possible,” when personnel can reach the scene of barn fires in time to effect rescues, and to “permit fast access to animals, as well as provide ready availability of drugs for pain relief and euthanasia if necessary.”
Dairy barns with traditional haylofts above the cows typically ignite from spontaneous combustion and burn so fast that fire department response is limited to trying to keep the flames from spreading to other buildings. Pig and poultry barns less often have flammable feedstuffs stored in proximity to the animals, and therefore may take longer to burn.
Points out CETFA, “Barn fires are highly preventable simply by making a few design adjustments or retrofitting them into existing barns, and taking common sense steps to prevent fires in high risk locations. These include separating the electronic installations from the rest of the building with fireproof walls or compartments,” and “ensuring regular maintenance of electrical equipment and systems,” as building and safety codes require for many other business properties.
CETFA also recommends constructing and furnishing new barns with non-flammable materials, and “Installing heat and smoke detectors and alarms, along with fire suppressant systems such as sprinklers.”
U.S. standard proposal
The U.S. National Fire Protection Association in 2012 proposed an amendment to the 2013 edition of NFPA 150: Standard of Fire & Fire Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities which would have required all newly-built farmed animal housing facilities to have both sprinklers and smoke control systems.
Founded in 1896, the National Fire Protection Association publishes and frequently updates fire safety standards used by insurance underwriters and often written into building codes.
“Big ag” opposition
National Fire Protection Association data shows that firefighters respond to about 830 barn fires per year in the U.S., doing $28 million worth of damage.
“The NFPA already requires sprinklers in facilities housing animals like bears and elephants who can’t be easily moved,” observed Chicago-based health writer Martha Rosenberg in February 2014. “But 15 big ag groups including the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers, and cattle, pork, and dairy producers appealed against the NFPA proposal and it was scrapped. The reason? Animals’ lives are not worth the cost, says big ag.”
In truth, the existing water supply system serving the animals at any farm could double as a sprinkler system just by adding heat-sensitive sprinkler heads. No more water would be needed than the water already in the supply lines.
More about CETFA
Neither the Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals recommendations nor those proposed by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association are new. Indeed, they were old already when I first encountered and endorsed them in 1986 in my then capacity as farm-and-business reporter for the Sherbrooke Record, of Sherbrooke, Quebec, four years before an acquaintance, the late Tina Harrison, founded Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals.
Tina, who died in 2002, had been elected to the board of the Vancouver branch of the British Columbia SPCA in the late 1980s on a reform plank favoring sterilization of all animals before adoption and the abolition of use of a gas chamber to kill homeless animals.
Ousted from the BC/SPCA board after only one year, Tina went on to found Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals out of concern and frustration about the treatment of pigs in transport from farm to slaughter. During 11 years as coordinator of Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals, before illness forced her retirement, Tina won six federal and provincial regulatory amendments on behalf of livestock.
We discussed barn fires in several telephone conversations over the years, but I was unaware until recently that barn fire prevention had become a Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals focal concern.
Baptism by fire
Barn fire prevention had abruptly become of urgent concern to me as I crossed the Richelieu River, not far south of St. Denis sur Richelieu, en route home after competing in the April 1986 Sri Chinmoy Marathon in Montreal, and enjoying the vegan hospitality of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team afterward. The late Sri Chinmoy Ghose (2001-2007) was an influential promoter of both distance running and veganism for decades, and though never much interested in the spiritual side of his work, I often participated in his Montreal athletic events.
I had my legally blind friend Norm Cook with me, who had been my second in the marathon, taking care of my timekeeping and water stops. Norm much appreciated good food. We were talking about the post-race repast and my reasons for vegetarianism when, from the bridge over the Richelieu, I saw a column of smoke shoot up about 10 miles from the Eastern Townships Autoroute. After initially thinking someone was clearing brush, I recognized that a barn was ablaze.
I told Norm, who said immediately “Floor it!”
We raced to the scene, near Ste. Sabine, arriving ahead of any fire engines. Telling Norm to stay outside to await the fire crews, I kicked the door open to find six thousand sows and piglets locked into iron farrowing crates. The whole roof was on fire, with pieces falling all around. I could not figure out how to release any of the sows and piglets. While I stood there trying to figure out what to do, with no useful tools or firefighting equipment, I saw Norm coming to try to rescue me after, in his probably accurate judgment, I had been inside too long.
In the crisis, we saved the only ones we could save, ourselves. All we could do was cry and curse while all six thousand pigs and piglets died from burns and smoke inhalation. The dying pigs and piglets sounded just like human babies in their pain and terror.
Minutes too late
Fire engines arrived from Ste. Sabine and several other nearby villages just minutes too late. We fought for five hours to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings and the woods. At one point the wind shifted, immersed us in a cloud of thick smoke, and nearly forced us all to dive into a tank of hog slurry and swim for our lives. We feathered back our hoses and huddled together to breathe the mist from the nozzles until the wind shifted again and we could resume firefighting.
When I think of factory farming now, which is practically every day, I think of the grotesque porcine parody of a Madonna-and-child-in-manger scene that we saw when we pried the siding off of one section of the barn and got inside with a hose.
I also remember constantly that I could probably have saved several thousand of the baby pigs if I had thought to peel away siding from outside the barn, instead of focusing on my inability to open the steel crates that held their mamas.
Unfortunately, until after the barn burned and I was standing in the rubble, I hadn’t realized that this could be done.
The Triangle Fire
Wrote Martha Rosenberg in her February 2014 column about the U.S. National Fire Protection Association proposals for barn fire prevention, “There is a reason hospital burn units have the highest turnover of nurses. There is a reason the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City and the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire in Bangladesh live on in the world’s consciousness. There is a reason hell is depicted as eternal fire. Perishing from a fire is an unfathomable death.”
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 123 young women and 23 men, brought near universal agreement from the U.S. public and political representatives that economic interests should never again supersede concern for human workplace safety. The Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 117 people, has had a similar effect in Bangladesh.
Recognizing that the animals who live and labor for human benefit also deserve protection from fire really should not require a great stretch of consideration.