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It doesn’t take long for a smouldering fire to erupt into a blazing inferno. Most barns are packed full of possible fuel sources, from large quantities of hay or straw, to chemicals, to the buildings themselves for older structures. Fire and smoke can spread so quickly that even if detected early it may not be possible for responders to get there in time, for animals or equipment to be saved, or even for employees to escape. With just a few breaths, smoke can easily incapacitate both humans and animals. Preplanning, training, and preparation can help to prevent tragedy, speed response times, and save human and animal lives if the worst happens. Yet many of the simplest protection and prevention techniques recommended by farm and fire experts across the country and the world are not currently standard farm practice. This needs to change.
Each year hundreds of thousands of livestock animals are lost to barn fires. Not only do these animals suffer and die in horrible pain, but their losses cost farmers millions of dollars in lost revenue and often take years to recoup from insurance companies who consider animals assets instead of living beings. Furthermore, insurance payouts are slow, often up to 18 months, frequently resulting in bankruptcy for farmers without sufficient saved resources to pay employees or replenish their stock during that time. Farm fires can devastate whole families for years at a time. Early detection of fire and planning/training in fire response is fundamental to human and animal safety
Evacuating animals can be difficult to impossible once a fire has started. Pigs and poultry are often housed too densely to make evacuation possible in any practical fashion, especially in Canadian winters where animals can die in just minutes of outdoor exposure. For this reason, these two industries suffer the highest animal losses from fires. Horses, on the other hand, are generally considered more valuable and are housed less densely, but evacuating horses involves other considerations. For one thing, horses may want to remain in their stalls during a fire because they think the stall is a safe and familiar place. Even when owners or handlers are on the scene in time to make a difference, there are numerous horror stories of horses breaking free from handlers and running back into burning barns. Have a halter and lead at each stall (do not keep horses haltered), practicing fire drills and knowing the location of the fire exits can better prepare horse owners to react, should fire strike.
While the most reliable, humane, and cost-effective approach will always be to prevent fires from starting, it is important to plan for the worst and to have solid procedures for fire response, control and extinguishing in place as well. Lightning, arson, and accidents can sometimes cause fires despite the best planning and practices. Up-to-date emergency procedures can greatly reduce the risk to both farm employees and animals and greatly increase response time in an emergency.
Throughout 2004, the CFHS worked with farm animal specialists and industry groups such as the Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association to implement a barn fire prevention strategy. As a result of that collaboration, we have three factsheets in PDF format which can be downloaded: