Farming Magazine - May, 2013

COLUMNS

Working Horses: Anatomy of a Farm Fire

By Vicki Schmidt

Articles abound with information on how to prevent a fire on your farm, but let's take this one step further: Have you ever considered how your local fire department would fight a fire on your farm? "With water" will be the standard reply, and you're correct. But how is that water going to get there? How long will it take, and will the responding fire apparatus have easy, unobstructed access to the building on fire? More importantly, which buildings will also need considerations to defend livestock, hay or equipment that may be housed or stored in them?

While many livestock were rescued from this barn during the initial stages, the fire was detected well past its ignition
point and spread quickly once it was discovered; several cattle, baby goats and dozens of chickens perished. The fire
was contained to the building of origin, and outbuildings were well-protected by the responding departments.

While many livestock were rescued from this barn during the initial stages, the fire was detected well past its ignition point and spread quickly once it was discovered; several cattle, baby goats and dozens of chickens perished. The fire was contained to the building of origin, and outbuildings were well-protected by the responding departments.
Photo by Chuck Blaquiere.

Despite the fact that your fire department may be one of the best around, the time from tone to arrival on the scene will seem like hours for any farm owner whose building is on fire. Even if you're careful and follow all the rules for proper fire prevention on your farm, accidents can, and do, happen. Plan now for the time between your call to 911 and the arrival of the first units.

Farm owners need to prepare as much
as possible for a fire on their farm. Given
the hostile conditions of hot smoke,
most livestock, especially horses, will
not survive long if exposed to fire.

Farm owners need to prepare as much as possible for a fire on their farm. Given the hostile conditions of hot smoke, most livestock, especially horses, will not survive long if exposed to fire.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Schmidt.

One positive for the arrival of firefighting units to your farm will be easy access to a viable water supply. There is some comfort for the average homeowner if you are within a hydrant district served by a local water supply. While this may be a dependable water supply for a residential fire, it may or may not be able to serve the gallons per minute (GPM) of water flow needed to fight a barn fire.

Residing outside of the hydrant district means your farm is most likely served by a rural water supply. For a farm fire, this means dozens of fire apparatuses, usually from several towns, which will include engines, pumpers and water tankers (tenders). The relay of tankers will be complemented with a system of portable dump tanks, dry hydrants and natural water sources.

Here are some questions you should consider when it comes to fire control: Are your property and all the buildings easily accessible by fire apparatuses? Are your access roads plowed and passable year-round? Can they support the weight of modern fire apparatuses? What seems like a small grass fire caused by a careless smoker or a stray lightning strike can easily spread to buildings if conditions are dry and the winds are brisk.

Rural water supply involves setting up fill and dump sites for
the water, as well as multiple trucks, dump tanks, supply lines
and hand lines.

Rural water supply involves setting up fill and dump sites for the water, as well as multiple trucks, dump tanks, supply lines and hand lines.
Photo by Chuck Blaquiere.

In rural areas with volunteer departments, the arrival of the first truck on the scene is often 20 minutes or more from the time the call is received by the emergency 911 center. Unless the fire is detected at ignition, the fire may be well-established before it is noticed. It is crucial that the first arriving units have unobstructed access to the property and buildings if there is to be any chance of stopping the fire before it causes extensive damage or spreads to other buildings.

It's also a sad fact that most livestock, especially horses, will not survive a barn fire or exposure to the hostile gases and hot smoke. "Fight-or-flight" animals have an exceptionally efficient air exchange system compared to humans. This efficiency, which allows them to run and escape when needed, also means deadly carbon dioxide and other toxins are easily embedded into sensitive lung tissue. Even when animals are rescued from adverse smoke conditions, they often succumb to the injury from internal secondary damage, such as pulmonary edema or pneumonia. Identify areas now that can securely pasture or provide alternative housing for your livestock in the event an emergency evacuation of their current building is needed.

Given few resources for nearby water, farms outside the hydrant district may require long shuttles of
water from hydrants in town. This fire required a 3.1-mile shuttle over country roads and involved dozens
of tankers that continually fed the 1,000-plus GPM needed to keep the fully involved barn fire from
spreading to adjacent structures.

Given few resources for nearby water, farms outside the hydrant district may require long shuttles of water from hydrants in town. This fire required a 3.1-mile shuttle over country roads and involved dozens of tankers that continually fed the 1,000-plus GPM needed to keep the fully involved barn fire from spreading to adjacent structures.
Photo courtesy of Vicki Schmidt.

With most municipal and volunteer fire departments facing manpower shortages, the ability for farm owners to prepare to the greatest extent possible is vitally important. If you have not yet done so, inviting the local fire chief to tour your farm should be at the top of your to-do list. Ideally, involve the chief and commanding officers in preplanning for the possibility of a fire occurring at your farm. Familiarity with your buildings and items they contain, as well as traffic patterns around your buildings, will help immensely if emergency response for a fire is needed. If you have had additions to or expansions to your facility, ensure that the local responders are aware of these changes.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. She is also a Maine Fire Service instructor, and a firefighter and training officer for the Buckfield (Maine) Fire Department. In addition to teaching firefighters, she also instructs first responders and farm owners for large animal emergency rescue courses throughout the U.S.