Animal Welfare Institute & Humane Society International make recommendations
WASEKA, Minnesota––Twelve thousand pigs, including 9,000 piglets and 3,000 sows, died in a May 16, 2021 fire that razed two barns at the Woodville Pork Farm in Waseca, Minnesota.
Nine different rural fire departments sent water tankers, but as the first barn was already fully ablaze when the first fire call came, and the second barn was catching, there was little that firefighters could do but keep the flames from spreading to a third barn, Waseca fire Chief Jason Forshee told local media.
Poultry barns burn too
The Waseka fire erupted about fifteen hours after a poultry barn burned in Rutherford County, Tennessee, killing what WSMV-TV in Nashville called “A small group of chickens.”
Three hundred chickens died five days earlier in a barn fire at the Scamman Farm in Stratham, New Hampshire, where George W. Bush held a campaign rally in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2011 announced his unsuccessful 2012 run for the U.S. presidency campaign.
The Scamman Farm, founded in 1776, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.
A more typical barn fire killed an unknown number of squabs on April 11, 2021 near Empire, California, but Stanislaus Consolidated Battalion Chief Rick Bussell told media that the dead birds were only a small percentage of the number of squabs at the farm, as only one of the six barns on site burned.
35 years of barn fire exposés
The biggest barn fire of the year, so far, may have been the one that razed two barns at Hickman’s Family Farm in Tonopah, Arizona, on March 6, 2021, killing nearly 165,000 egg-laying hens.
Bad as the Hickman’s Family Farm fire was, it killed 100,000 fewer chickens than any of the four largest U.S. barn fires of 2020.
Among them, the Waseka, Rutherford County, Empire, and Tonopah barn fires underscored the major points made in extensive coverage of barn fires by ANIMALS 24-7 since 1986, beginning after a farrowing barn fire closely comparable to the one in Waseka: barn fires are far more common than is generally recognized, killing far more animals; barn fires are mostly preventable if barns are built and maintained as if animals’ lives matter; and industry practice continues to be to write off barn fires as just a cost of doing business, even though such fires often put individual farmers permanently out of business, because the cost of rebuilding typically underinsured facilities exceeds their lines of credit.
Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat
The Animal Welfare Institute in a report entitled Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat to Farm Animals, published in 2018, belatedly became the first major U.S. animal advocacy organization to seriously address the issue.
Lead author Alicia Prygoski, now legislative affairs manager for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, was then an Animal Welfare Institute policy associate, after having previously been public policy coordinator for farmed animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
Examining media reports about “barn fires that occurred over a period of five years, from 2013 to 2017,” the Animal Welfare Institute team discovered that, “From 2013 to 2017, at least 2,763,924 farm animals died as a result of barn fires.
“Due to unreported fires,” the Animal Welfare Institute team added, “it is likely that the number of deaths is significantly higher.”
“Weather appeared to play significant role”
Among the other Animal Welfare Institute findings were that “Weather appeared to play a significant role in the prevalence of barn fires, with more occurring when temperatures dropped. Approximately two-thirds of barn fires occurred during the colder months,” from October through March.
On traditional farms, these were the months when animals were most likely to have been kept indoors. On the “factory farms” of today, where the animals are kept indoors in intensive confinement all of their lives, these are the months when barns may need to be heated.
“While many animal deaths due to barn fires occurred in states with the most significant animal agriculture production,” the Animal Welfare Institute team found, “a disproportionate number occurred in northeastern and midwestern states with lower levels of animal agriculture production. This further suggests that colder weather is a key factor in the likelihood of barn fires. The main cause of barn fires, when such cause could be determined, was improper use of or malfunctioning heating devices, with other electrical devices also playing a significant role.
95% of barn fire victims are chickens
“The number of chicken deaths per year vastly outnumbered those of other species,” the Animal Welfare Institute team observed. “From 2013 to 2017, 95% of farm animals killed in barn fires were chickens.
“There are no federal or state laws in the United States specifically designed to protect farm animals from barn fires,” the Animal Welfare Institute team continued.
But the Animal Welfare Institute advocated seven barn fire prevention approaches, many of them recommended by ANIMALS 24-7 since 1986, which could be enacted into law or local ordinances, or at least be vigorously advanced by third party farm product certification programs, insurance companies, and agribusiness organizations, without causing any farmer significant economic hardship relative to the cost of a barn fire.
Sprinkler systems, the Animal Welfare Institute suggested, “Though sometimes cost prohibitive, [are] the most effective suppression system for putting out fires. Because a water source is required for sprinkler systems, these work best in areas where there is already one present,” for example in barns already outfitted with pipelines to provide drinking water to animals.
These days that is practically every barn housing poultry, pigs, or cattle in significant numbers.
Inspections & detection devices
“A simple step that every farm owner can take to prevent fires,” the Animal Welfare Institute continued, “is to have the local fire department do an annual inspection. Inspections are done to ensure that electrical systems are working properly, that barns are free of fire hazards, and that the best emergency plan is in place in case of a fire.
“Fire extinguishers should be placed strategically throughout each barn,” the Animal Welfare Institute added, “and staff should be trained on how to use them. A variety of extinguisher models are available to meet the needs of various kinds and sizes of barns.
“Smoke detection systems are effective in sensing fires early on,” the Animal Welfare Institute mentioned, “especially when they employ a system that automatically notifies farm owners and emergency responders.”
The Animal Welfare Institute also recommended the installation of heat detectors, which “can be very effective when combined with an alarm system alerting authorities of a fire.
“All barns should be equipped with carbon monoxide detection systems,” the Animal Welfare Institute said, “but they are particularly important in settings where farm equipment and vehicles are stored in the same or adjacent barns.”
Noting that barn fires typically erupt unexpectedly and spread quickly, the Animal Welfare Institute mentioned that, “In certain situations, employees might be able to extinguish a fire or alert the fire department before it overwhelms the barn and becomes a threat.
“To increase the chances of this happening, employees should receive training on how to use fire extinguishers, what to do if they see a fire or hear an alarm go off, and where all of the exits are located.
“Routine fire drills are useful to help employees practice fire safety scenarios.”
Humane Society International
Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat to Farm Animals was followed two years later, in 2020, by Untold Suffering: The Tragic Impact of Barn Fires on Animals, subtitled “A Five-Year Review of Barn Fires in Canada,” issued by the Canadian office of Humane Society International, a subsidiary of the Humane Society of the United States.
The only individual contributors mentioned were “volunteers Jennifer Baldwin and NaÏscha Orleski,” with recognition also extended to the Canadian Coalition for Farmed Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, “the first responders who bravely fight these fires, the journalists who report on this important issue, and the farmers, officials and policymakers who already prioritize fire safety on farms.”
“From 2015-2019, at least 740,000 farm animals died due to barn fires in Canada,” Humane Society International found.
“Given that not all fires are reported in the media and that not all media reports include a figure for the number of animals who died, especially for smaller fires, this figure is undoubtedly a conservative estimate of the actual number of farm animal deaths that have occurred.”
“A barn fire occurs every 2.4 days”
Humane Society International noted that the trade periodical Farmers Forum reported in 2016 that “a barn fire occurs every 2.4 days on average in Ontario alone.”
In Canada, Humane Society International reported, chickens account for “only” 74% of all barn fire deaths in the past five years, compared to the 95% figure found by the Animal Welfare Institute in the U.S.
“Each year, there were multiple incidents where tens of thousands of chickens were killed,” continued Humane Society International. “In comparison, the largest death count during this period for pigs ranged between 10,000-12,000 and was 800 for cows.
Humane Society International mentioned that a “low number of reported fires from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba compared to those from Ontario and Quebec suggests that the actual numbers for these four provinces are actually much higher.
“Indeed,” Humane Society International found, “reports of fires from Alberta and Saskatchewan, in particular, include very high death counts, suggesting that only the largest and most devastating fires are reported in the media.”
Fewer news media, publishing and broadcasting less often, serving smaller and more scattered human populations, could contribute to the sparse coverage of barn fires in the three prairie provinces and British Columbia.
On the other hand, farms in Quebec and Ontario tend to be both smaller and more numerous than in the prairie provinces, especially, so that more barn fires might occur in Quebec and Ontario, yet each kill fewer animals.
Many of the Humane Society International recommendations for preventing barn fires are almost word-for-word identical to those of the Animal Welfare Institute.
But Humane Society International did offer some additional suggestions.
“Fire and building codes should introduce a separate classification of buildings specifically for agricultural operations, to account for the unique criteria applicable only to barns,” Humane Society International said.
“Fire and building codes should incorporate the recommendations from the Technical Advisory Committee on Farm Fires, established by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs in 2007.
“Laws should require local fire departments to assess the water storage and equipment needs for each farm (existing or new construction) that houses any animal/s in barns. Following this assessment, fire departments must provide requirements to best suit each farms’ needs and require implementation within a given timeframe.
“It is best to have a local fire department make these standards on a case-by-case basis,” Humane Society International said, “as the requirements for each farm will differ depending on the type of construction, proximity of other buildings, proximity of available water sources, number of animals, and any other existing fire protection features.
Observing that farmers often have to wait as long as half an hour for fire departments to reach remote rural locations, Humane Society International noted that “Research on barn fires from the Puslinch Fire Rescue Services and the University of Waterloo determined that a barn can be fully involved within just four minutes of ignition.”
Therefore, Humane Society International recommended, “New construction should require firewalls to be constructed of hollow concrete blocks as they provide a 60-minute window” of opportunity for response to the outbreak of an electrical fire.
Humane Society International also emphasized the importance of inspections and maintenance to prevent barn fires.
“Barns housing farm animals are often humid (wet) and corrosive environments,” Humane Society International mentioned, “and these conditions are the leading cause of electrical degradation or failure that leads to fire.”
Other recent ANIMALS 24-7 barn fire prevention coverage: