How fire ready is your farm? A google search for “farm fire preparedness” will turn up at least 3 million hits. There are many publications and websites. But how many farmers actually put that information to use? Here are some very basic things you can do to ensure that you’re ready for the worst.
Field and Farmyard
Your fields can be a huge fuel source for a fire. You know this if you burn stubble. Dried grass, brush and stubble, even standing ripe crops, are vulnerable to fires.
When you stand in your farmyard and look out at the fields, ask yourself, if there was a fire, where would you plough a fire break? Do your fields come right up to the windbreak in your yard? Do you have a dugout or pond to pump water from? Have you noticed what seasons bring the strongest and driest winds?
A farmyard can be a fire trap or it can be defended. Planning ahead and placing resources correctly can make all the difference.
1. Test your ability to hook up the tractor and discer. How quickly could you do it safely? Can you create a fire break around your yard, or is that area cluttered with old equipment? Are the gates wide enough?
2. Start up your pump and hose and test it. A pump that won’t fire and a hose with holes or cracks is more useless than no pump or hose. If you don’t have them, you’re not counting on them. If you have them and they don’t work, you’ll waste valuable time fooling around with them.
3. Make an evacuation plan for your farmyard. Know who will stay to keep things wet and plough fire breaks and who will leave to safety. Know where you will go, and make sure you have an alternate route to get there in case the regular way is blocked by fire or smoke.
Knowing what to do while the fire is small is critical in keeping it under control. At no time should you risk your own health or safety. Equipment and even animals can be replaced, and crops re-grown. Your family will not skip mourning you because you died saving the new tractor.
Barn and Livestock
Livestock are very vulnerable to injury and death in fires. Their housing is fraught with danger as it’s filled with both fuel and ignition sources. It is also very difficult to remove animals from many modern farm buildings. Most farmyards with multiple animal buildings are not designed with emergency evacuation or animal containment in mind.
4. Make a plan and share it. You need to plan how you’ll take care of your animals in the event of a farm fire threat. Barn fires are as different as the varied barn designs you see everywhere. Each has a strong point and a number of weaknesses. You know your barn well. But if you aren’t there, who will know what to do? You may have a top notch fire plan, but have you shared it with your local fire department, or your neighbours? Their lives could depend upon it.
5. Think about what your animals will do. There is no set way that livestock react in a fire, but there are some common reactions. “Fight or flight” is one description, and animals will sometimes do these one right after the other. They will run away from danger that they cannot fight, but fire fire is not truly seen as a danger to most domestic animals. The fire fighters, the outside noise, lights and sounds of human panic are understood as danger. Their instinct to go to a “safe place” is strong and, tragically, that safe place is the burning barn you are trying to save them from. Knowing how to prepare your horse barn, with fire halters and proper strategies for calming moving animals, can save their lives and yours.
6. Make your barn fire safe. What can we do? Better alarms, fire walls, reducing fuel load and ignition sources. Make sure your barn can be “shut off” in sections so a fire can’t control the entire facility.
7. Don’t forget about open range livestock. These animals face tragically different fire dangers. Wildland fires will push animals to higher ground or against fences that they cannot see. They may become entangled in partially burnt fences. After extremely fast moving grass fires, I’ve seen cattle with their legs burnt, but no soot on their faces. Given a chance, some horses and cattle can instinctively find safety, but this is not a strategy you can count on. Fences, natural barriers and factors such as noise, wind, water bombers and smoke can disorient, confuse and panic animals back into the fire they were fleeing.
8. Keep yourself safe. Never allow someone into a burning building to save an animal. This instinct is strong but also deadly. People can be overcome quickly with smoke and require rescue themselves.
9. Provide care after the fire. With people and animals, smoke inhalation is very often the cause of death in a fire. Toxic smoke suffocates many long before the fire reaches them. Animals “rescued” from smoke often require treatment, and sometimes euthanasia, due to smoke damage.
Planning ahead can reduce losses, but until we can eliminate fires from our farms we won’t eliminate the deadly impact they can have on our farms and communities. †