Nature is great at providing object lessons. In 2011, for much of the country (with perhaps the exception of Texas) the lesson was about the impact of excess moisture. In 2012, it seems to be a lesson about lack of moisture and its consequences. While the national news has been focused on the western wildfires and the terrible losses there, it almost seems as if a set of fires is impacting agriculture in other parts of the country. What’s clear is that nature is currently giving us a lesson about how prevention and preparedness can be used to minimize the potential for fire on your farm.
Between 1996 and 1998, there were more than 20,000 fires each year on agricultural properties with over $102 million dollars of loss each year. To combat those types of losses, a large portion of prevention should go into planning to reduce risk. In other words, a farm operator should consider ways to incorporate fireproof or low flammability materials when building or remodeling facilities, including updating electrical service and wiring to meet modern uses and codes. Check with your power provider to see if there are incentives available to assist farms with the cost of upgrading. This might also be the time to re-examine insurance coverage against fire for animals, buildings and equipment.
Another way to increase prevention includes increasing the farm operation’s ability to quickly address a small fire before it becomes a large one. Invite representatives of the local fire department to visit the farm to identify risks and suggest methods for reducing fire risk. Let the experts give you advice on how to identify dangerous situations. Additionally, building a relationship with first responders helps them understand your operation better.
At the same time preventative measures are examined, the opportunity to embrace a preparedness culture on the farm is another way to potentially reduce the overall impact should there be a fire. A first step is to evaluate and adjust the availability, type and size of fire extinguishers on the farm.
Fire extinguishers are classified for different types of fire. Each type is appropriate for a different type of fire. Using the wrong type of extinguisher on the wrong type of fire can make the fire spread more quickly. Depending on the type of fire that could develop in different areas of the farm means that different types and sizes of fire extinguishers may be needed at different locations around the farm (home, office, shop, etc.). Due to the risk of fire during harvesting operations each truck, tractor and self-propelled harvester or combine should have at least one extinguisher in the field. It is also important that each person on the farm understand the differences between fire extinguishers and know how to use them. Fire and extinguisher training is a great safety training opportunity for farm staff and management. A large group of training fact sheets and training materials are available for free at the National Ag Safety Database.
A final consideration for those interested in improving fire response on the farm might be the installation of a dry hydrant. A dry hydrant is a standpipe with a standard hydrant connection which leads to a farm pond or natural water source. Most rural areas where farms can be found do not have on site public water supplies to be used by firefighters to fight fires. Most rural fire departments either rely on tankers to shuttle water to a fire and/or plan to draw water from local natural or manmade water sources. Many farms have an advantage over other rural residences because there are farm ponds that were originally built to provide water for cattle and other agricultural activities. The dry hydrants are set up to allow for that water to be used by the first responders. Do the first responders have the ability to draw their own water from the pond? Yes they probably do, but accessing the pond may take valuable time before they can be set up to do so. Installation of a dry hydrant is not that difficult. There are some engineering and likely some type of community approvals required to ensure everything operates appropriately. A discussion with the local Fire Department is probably the best place to start. Irrigation from other large wells found on farms can, in some cases, also be set up to allow for emergency use. But, if the power shutoff and power supply for the well pump is not routed separately from the rest of the farm structures you may find that the first responders may not be able to use it because they cut power to the entire farm or the building on fire for safety reasons.
Though there are thousands of agricultural fires in the U.S. each year, addressing this risk on your own farm does not require large sums of money, time or effort. Small steps taken to assess risk, train family and staff, review plans and improve preparedness are all simple to do and worth the time in the big picture, if you consider the value of the farm operation.
Dean Ross is an agrosecurity and dairy farm management consultant based in Michigan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org