At 4:30 am on June 6, 2012, dairy farmer Harry Byce woke up very suddenly to what he thought was the sound of rain on his hay. It was odd that he heard it before he smelled it, but that’s the way the mind works when deep asleep. Concerned about his hay, he jumped out of bed only to discover that his hay was fine, but his barn was on fire. The sound he’d heard wasn’t rain, but heavy ash and sparks hitting the roof of his house.
Fire may be a rare occurrence today, but it does happen. And it can cause significant damage. Harry and his wife, Celeste, owners of Heatherdale Farms at Beachburg, Ont., know this all too well. Although, it took the fire department less than 30 minutes to respond to Harry’s call, by that time they got there, the barn — constructed of dry timbers and filled with flammable feed — was unsalvageable.
“The fire burned so hot that the pipeline and the gutter chains and the metal stalling all melted,” says Celeste. “It even burned holes in the tower silos. The guys worked to contain it to one building, saving a nearby hayshed.”
What caused the fired was never determined, but investigators said it was likely a combination of the barn’s age and dated electrical wiring. “We had redone the electrical from the addition from ‘78 back to the main barn, but had not redone the wiring in the old feed room,” says Celeste. “The newer milk house was all up to code, but we had not disconnected the old bare wiring in the dry cow barn.”
Check the power lines
Kerry Sharpe, a grain farmer and volunteer firefighter from the village of Munson, Alta., says this type of fire is common. It’s not just old wiring in barns that farm owners should be wary of, though, he says, recommending regular checks on outdoor power lines too. As they age, he says, they can fray or fall down, causing fire.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” he warns.
Two years ago, Sharpe took a call from a farmer who had hit an overhead power line with his combine. The combine caught fire. Although none of his crop was lost, the farmer did lose his combine.
Other causes of fire, says Sharpe, include improper disposal of flammable material and unmaintained equipment, the first of which causes an average of one fire per month in Munson.
In the event of fire call 911 immediately. “Don’t try to tackle the fire on your own first,” Sharpe says. “And know what kind of fire it is before tackling it at all.”
Finally, he says to make sure that you have a fire safety plan on hand for workers and do regular fire safety checks.
Harry and Celeste offer their own valuable advice. The fire on their farm destroyed their entire barn and nearly took a nearby storage space with it. Unfortunately, the couple hadn’t reviewed their insurance policy in quite some time. Following the fire, they quickly discovered that much of what they’d been insuring was worth nothing, some items weren’t insured at all, and the income interruption insurance they had didn’t fit their business. These were hard lessons to learn at a time at the time, but valuable ones to pass on to others.
“The insurance company was good to work with, but it took a lot of time determining the value of items,” says Celeste. “We should have reviewed the policy, dropped the items or had different coverage, like replacement value for three or five years.”
Although the couple had interruption insurance, they hadn’t properly reviewed and amended the policy as their company grew. As a result, they were insured for the wrong value.
“Insurance is boring and a bit confusing,” says Celeste, “but it should fit your company and be reviewed every two years.”
Harry and Celeste haven’t just reviewed and amended their insurance policy, though. They’ve also implemented a strict no smoking policy on the farm. They’ve installed new fire extinguishers and firebreaks have been incorporated into the trusses in the ceiling. In their new barn, everything is up to code and they conduct regular preventative maintenance.
Don’t put off until tomorrow tasks that could prevent a fire today, says Celeste. “Get someone to properly disconnect the old wires in parts of barns you intend to redo later or don’t intend to redo at all,” she says. “And review your fire procedures. We were lucky the house did not go up. We were lucky no one was hurt. We worked with great people to rebuild and as a result we are now milking again.”
Fire safety checklist
To minimize fire hazards, Kerry Sharpe, farmer and volunteer firefighter at Munson, Alberta, suggests the following checklist:
- Implement a strict no smoking policy on the farm
- Check machinery regularly
- Use a laser thermometer to check machinery temperatures
- Remove flammable debris from around the farm
- Store flammable items safely and properly
- Know your surroundings