Barn Fires – A Concern for Ontario Farmers
Questions and Answers to Barn Fires and Fires in Farm Structures

Table of Contents

  1. Why are there concerns about barn fires?
  2. What are the main causes of fires?
  3. What are the primary sources of ignition?
  4. Why is electrical distribution equipment such a common cause of ignition?
  5. What steps can be taken to minimize or eliminate the leading causes of ignition?
  6. What equipment maintenance steps can be taken within existing livestock buildings?
  7. What general maintenance steps can be taken around existing livestock buildings?
  8. What steps can be taken to minimize fire spread in farm buildings to aid firefighters in containing and extinguishing the fire?
  9. Resources

Barn fires are a major concern for Ontario farmers. The evolution towards large-scale farm operations has further heightened the need to address the problem of barn fires and fires in large farm structures. In 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) formed a Technical Advisory Committee on Farm Fires to address the fire safety risks to farm workers and emergency responders. The purpose of the committee was to reduce the potential for life and/or property loss by identifying best practices in the industry and potential changes to regulations.

Members of the committee included:

  • Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs
  • Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management
  • Municipal building officials
  • Farm building contractors and farm building design engineers
  • Insurance industry
  • Canadian Farm Builders Association
  • Ontario Pork
  • Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing
  • Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

This document, created by the Technical Advisory Committee, provides answers to many industry questions.

Why are there concerns about barn fires?

As farms have grown larger, associated farm buildings have increased in size and value. As a result,

when the large structures catch fire they prove more difficult to extinguish and the financial losses are significantly greater. Data from the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management indicates the following structure fire incidents for the period 2008-2014:

  • 2008: 184 fire incidents, $30.3 million loss
  • 2009: 186 fire incidents, $25.45 million loss
  • 2010: 164 fire incidents, $29.4 million loss
  • 2011: 186 fire incidents, $35.96 million loss
  • 2012: 136 fire incidents, $16 million loss
  • 2013: 157 fire incidents, $31.8 million loss
  • 2014: 150 fire incidents, $28.4 million loss

These costs include those associated with building structures, but not equipment, agricultural products or livestock. Luckily, to date, there has not been loss of human life associated with any of these fires.

Historic barn on fire, picture courtesy of John Johnson.

Figure 1. Historic barn on fire, picture courtesy of John Johnson.

What are the main causes of fires?

The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management has provided data for the cause of fires for the years 2008-2014. In each year, the leading causes for preventable, determined fires were:

  • mechanical/electrical failure
  • misuse of ignition source/equipment
  • design/construction/maintenance deficiency

The cause of fire for approximately 40 per cent of cases was reported as undetermined. This was due to the complete loss of the structure and contents, making it very difficult to determine the cause.

What are the primary sources of ignition?

The data suggests that the primary sources of ignition fall within the following classes:

  • miscellaneous (chemical reactions, such as spontaneous combustion and lightning)
  • electrical distribution equipment (circuit wiring, distribution equipment, extension cords etc.)
  • heating equipment (central heating, flue pipe, space heaters, etc.)
  • open flame (cutting/welding, blow torch, smokers articles etc.)

Why is electrical distribution equipment such a common cause of ignition?

The insurance industry and the Electrical Safety Authority have investigated this matter. The corrosive environment found inside livestock barns has been determined to be the leading cause of degradation or failure of electrical equipment. The degradation is typically corrosion of the exposed metal components, i.e. wires, connections, etc. The corrosion increases the resistance at these points, reducing the flow of electricity through the circuit. More importantly, the increased resistance results in more of the electrical energy being converted to heat. As the corrosion levels continue to increase, the heat generated can rise to ignition temperatures of materials surrounding the equipment.

Barn on fire, photo courtesy of Randy Drysdale.

Figure 2. Barn on fire, photo courtesy of Randy Drysdale.

What steps can be taken to minimize or eliminate the leading causes of ignition?

The Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) issued Bulletin 22-3-1 in July 2008 requiring all electrical equipment installed in animal confinement areas in barns meet the requirements of Category 1 locations (high humidity) and Category 2 locations (corrosive liquids and vapours). Their bulletin also specifies types of material required in these locations (for example copper conductors and cable assemblies).

The ESA also recommended that all non-essential equipment and equipment incorporating over current devices be installed in locations separated from the livestock confinement areas and supplied with clean, dry temperature controlled air. See www.esasafe.com for more information.

The construction of separate electrical/mechanical rooms to house electrical service panels and similar equipment is a best practice because it achieves the following:

  • protects equipment from corrosive humid barn environment
  • allows equipment to be housed in a fire-proofed room to minimize flame spread should a fire occur

What equipment maintenance steps can be taken within existing livestock buildings?

Have a qualified electrician do regular inspections of electrical and mechanical equipment, checking for signs of deterioration and/or corrosion of equipment in livestock confinement buildings. All items that are deemed to be unsafe or questionable should be repaired or replaced immediately.

Some insurance companies have been conducting inspections of electrical equipment (such as panels and plugs) using infrared cameras to look for hot spots (overheating) as a way to detect corrosion issues.

Infrared picture of electrical box components. This picture appears courtesy of Randy Drysdale.

Figure 3. Infrared picture of electrical box components. This picture appears courtesy of Randy Drysdale.

What general maintenance steps can be taken around existing livestock buildings?

Perform regular housekeeping activities around buildings to remove potential combustible materials. This can include mowing of vegetation and the regular removal of rubbish inside and around buildings. As well, all trees that are in close proximity to buildings should be trimmed or removed.

Properly site and manage on-farm fuel storage facilities away from buildings. This ensures flammable vapours released during refuelling of vehicles or filling of storages are not drawn into the farm buildings, but dissipate into the atmosphere.

What steps can be taken to minimize fire spread in farm buildings to aid firefighters in containing and extinguishing the fire?

The inclusion of effective fire stops in large farm buildings and an all season road around the entire building site to allow good access for fire fighting equipment are two initial steps that can be taken.

The National Farm Building Code of Canada (NFBCC) specifies a maximum floor area (compartment size) for farm buildings with low human occupancy. For a single-storey barn, the maximum floor area is 4,800 metres squared (m2) (51,600 square feet (sq. ft.)). For a two-storey barn, the maximum floor area is 2,400 m2 (25,800 sq. ft.). The compartment size must be restricted to these sizes by incorporating appropriate fire separations that have a rating of at least one hour.

The NFBCC (1995) also specifies that concealed spaces in ceilings, roof or attics shall be separated by fire stops so that no dimension of such space exceeds 30 metres (100 feet).

The Ontario Building Code prohibits the use of exposed foamed plastic insulation on interior surfaces of buildings. This combustible material must be covered or protected by an appropriate fire rated material if it is employed in a building.

An all season roadway capable of supporting weight of heavy equipment should be constructed around the farm building site and maintained so that it is accessible 365 days of the year.

All buildings should be equipped with a minimum five pound ABC fire extinguisher at each exit and in all mechanical and feed rooms. If there is a standby generator housed in the building, the room housing the generator should be equipped with a minimum 10 pound ABC fire extinguisher.

Please refer to the following OMAFRA resources for additional information on building code regulations:

The Technical Advisory Committee on Farm Fires published a book titled "Reducing the Risk of Fire on your Farm." The book includes a number of recommendations to prevent and reduce the impact of fires on the farm.

After the fire. Note the size of the excavator in relation to the barn. This picture appears courtesy of Randy Drysdale.

Figure 4. After the fire. Note the size of the excavator in relation to the barn. This picture appears courtesy of Randy Drysdale.

Resources

OMAFRA has many resources that can help you to plan for safer farm buildings and storages.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca
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