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Pay attention to the risk of barn fires

A few simple precautions and change in practices 
can help prevent a disaster

sheep wearing a coat

Barn fires are to be respected. The financial, emotional and physical damage that barn fires cause is massive.

According to the National Fire Prevention Association (their standards have been adopted in Ontario), defective or improperly used heating equipment is the No. 1 cause of barn and stable fires. During cold winter months, livestock producers may rely on any number of space heaters, heated buckets, portable water heaters, and other similar devices. And any one of these heaters, if defective or improperly used, can present an increased fire risk.

A fellow goat breeder in Ontario just suffered one of these devastating fires. It was caused by defrosting water pipes with a hair dryer. The heat ignited some older straw bales in the loft area, and the fire quickly spread, causing the loss of the whole barn.

Thankfully they didn’t lose all their livestock or get injured themselves but now they have to face the future. Thankfully they were able to take immediate action to remove their 100 angora goats from harm along with most of the rest of their other livestock.

This tragedy started some research for our farm to learn how we could work to avoid this kind of tragedy at home. For starters we will be much more careful about where combustible objects are in relation to the heat source when our water lines freeze.

Heat lamps, generally defined, are portable hanging fixtures with bulbs in them (usually 150-250 watts). The volunteer firemen in our area have fought many fires caused by these lamps. Research shows that the brooders for chicks are less often the cause of barn fires because their usage is planned. Most producers have time to safely install and prepare for brooder usage unlike other situations when they suddenly find themselves trying to quickly supply heat to a cold animal.

Heat lamps are always dangerous but when they are used in emergency situations things are usually worse. This is when fire safety is overlooked. With freezing temperatures and a newborn lamb or kid to protect, the heat lamps are quickly set up dangling by extension cords and baling twine, over a stall full of fresh bedding. In other cases they are needed to warm a calf with pneumonia or some other recumbent animal that needs a bit of tender loving care. This is when we run a risk of having a fire.

Use coats instead

In another situation a cattle producer with no calf-warming box uses a heat lamp for a surprise calf that is nearly hypothermic. The calf needs to be separated from its mother. The cow bashes through a panel to get to her calf and knocks the heat lamp into the bedding. We had friends that nearly lost their barn this way.

Instead of using heat lamps/bulbs we have adopted the use of coats for our animals that are chilled. We have used calf ear warmers too but took the advice of wise Grainews readers and moved our calving date to when it is warmer outside. The only time now these warmers are required is when an animal is sick. It is simply amazing how much cold a 10-pound lamb with a belly full of milk can cheerfully live in. There has also been occasion when we had a two-pound baby goat in June that just couldn’t regulate its temperature and needed a coat for quite some time. We have also used this idea on adult goats that have been ill.

If there’s a fire

Other preventative measures include keeping all smoking away from barns, ensuring all feed is dry when stored, being aware that grain dust is extremely combustible (another reason to keep heat lamps out of barns) and keeping flammable liquids out of the barn.

But sadly, no matter how careful a farmer is fires do happen. When they do the fire departments safety protocol is as follows:

  • Immediately call 911 or your local emergency services.
  • Do not enter the barn if it is already engulfed in flames.
  • If it is safe for you to enter the barn, evacuate animals one at a time, starting with the most accessible ones.
  • Never let animals loose in an area where they are able to return to the barn.
  • Put a halter and lead rope on each animal if possible and lead them away from the area. Be aware that animals tend to run back into burning barns out of fear and confusion.
  • Blindfold only if absolutely necessary. Many animals will balk at a blindfold, making evacuation more difficult and time consuming.
  • Move them to paddocks close enough to reach quickly but far enough from the barn that they won’t be affected by the fire and smoke.
  • Be sure to have all livestock checked by a veterinarian after the fire. Smoke inhalation can cause serious lung damage and respiratory complications.

Our hope is that no one has to experience the loss of a barn. Our friends in Ontario are slowly rebuilding their lives with the outpouring of generosity from neighbours and friends. Be safe.

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