Reducing the Risk of Fire on Your Farm - Leading Causes of Farm Building Fires
Table of Contents
The Office of the Fire Marshal manages a database on all fire and explosion occurrences in Ontario. Data reported by fire departments for 2004 2007 were analyzed for occurrences involving farm buildings to identify common causes and what can be learned to reduce them. Figure 1 shows a very large swine facility after it was destroyed by fire, in less than one hour.
Figure 1.0. This large swine barn was completely destroyed by fire. (Photo credit: P. Stolk, Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan)
While the sources of many fires are undetermined due to significant fire damage, there are three leading causes of identifiable farm fires, as reported by fire services.
Misuse of ignition source or igniting equipment
Design, construction or maintenance deficiency
The insurance industry, in association with the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA), reviewed additional information on mechanical and electrical failures leading to barn fires. They identified the corrosive environment found inside confined livestock barns as the leading cause of degradation or failure of electrical equipment. The degradation is typically corrosion of the exposed metal components (e.g. wires, connections, etc.). The corrosion increases the resistance at these points causing a reduction in the flow of electricity through the circuit. The increased resistance results in more of the electrical energy being converted to heat (Figures 1.1 and 1.2). As the corrosion levels continue to increase, the heat generated rises to the ignition temperature of the materials surrounding the equipment. The decay can occur over a short period of time. Evidence of corrosion has been observed in barns less than five years after construction.
Figure 1.1. Thermographic picture of an electrical receptacle in a livestock barn. (Photo credit: R. Drysdale, Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan)
Figure 1.2. Thermographic picture of an electrical panel in a livestock barn. (Photo credit: R. Drysdale, Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan)
A commonly reported cause of fires in farm buildings is the misuse of equipment (i.e. arc welders, cutting torches or grinders) in the presence of combustible materials or gases without the proper safeguards. The careless use of smoker's materials (i.e. cigarettes, matches, pipes) continues to be a common cause of fires. Fires reported in this group reflect human error and are preventable with best practice operating procedures (Figure 1.3).
Figure 1.3. Grinding operation taking place in the presence of combustible materials. Use this type of equipment outside the barn and away from combustibles, or put safeguards in place to reduce the risk of accidental ignition.
Improperly designed, installed or maintained building systems are another common cause of farm building fires. This includes heating equipment, lighting systems, process equipment and electrical distribution. For example, heat shields for a suspended radiant tube heater may become displaced with the use of a high pressure washer. Without the shields properly in place, the underside of the ceiling becomes too hot and increases the potential for ignition and fire (Figures 1.4 and 1.5). Although the design and installation of the equipment is correct, a maintenance deficiency would be identified as the cause of the fire.
Figure 1.4. Radiant tube heater with heat shield displaced. Note charring on the ceiling. (Photo credit: R. Drysdale, Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan)
Figure 1.5. Radiant tube heater lacking heat shield. Note close proximity to combustibles (wood ceiling and conduit). (Photo credit: R. Drysdale, Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan)
In addition to looking at the causes of fire, it is important to review other factors that contribute to fire growth and the magnitude of the losses. An ignition source must be close to combustible materials for fire to start. Combustible materials cannot be totally avoided on the farm, but reducing their use in construction and establishing good housekeeping practices goes a long way in reducing fire growth. The use of fire compartments is an effective design strategy to contain a fire and prevent total building destruction. To be effective, keep fire compartments in good condition, including the proper operation of fire doors. Early detection and fire response are key to reducing the magnitude of farm fires. Many of these concepts and recommended considerations are covered in this guide.
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