Prevent barn fires: Safety tips to keep your barn and animals safe

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Firefighters from 13 departments assisted the Johnson Creek Fire Department as they fought a blaze at Dettmann Dairy in the town of Milford on Jan. 13. Sub zero temperatures caused problems with icing.

We were living in Cottage Grove when we got the call that the barn at our family farm was on fire. Throwing our two preschool children into the car, the hour plus drive from Dane County to Washington County in the middle of the night was the longest ride of my life. 

Still a few miles from the farm, we could see the giant red glow in the distance lighting the evening sky as an ambulance screamed toward us. That was nearly 30 years ago, yet the image remains etched in my mind. Luckily, no animals were lost in the fire but the upper part of the barn was destroyed. 

Wisconsin: most barn fires

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) reported more than 150,000 farm animals perished in barn fires in the United States in 2018, with Wisconsin reportedly having the most fires at 19, followed by Ohio with 18 and New York with 18. AWI tracked 148 barn fires in 2018, nearly double the number recorded in the previous year. 

Barn fires occurred most often in the Upper Midwest and Northeast, according to an AWI report released in October, and were more common in winter months due to malfunctioning or improperly placed heating devices.

Flames leap from the milking parlor at Dettmann Dairy as firefighters work in sub zero weather to extinguish the blaze on Jan. 13 in Johnson Creek.

With winter upon us, some tips from the Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Program may go a long way in preventing a farmer's worst nightmare. 

According to Ohio State University, most barn fires are preventable. Common causes of barn fires include electric appliances, heaters and heat lamps, fans, exposed wires, dirty outlets, smoking, wet hay, and machinery.

Related:Safely warm newborn calves in wintertime

At Dettmann Dairy in Johnson Creek on Jan. 13, 2018, a dryer started a fire that destroyed the milking parlor.  A July 12, 2018 fire in Fond du Lac County that killed eight cows was believed to have been caused by an electrical problem. 

Our fire started after a day of chopping straw in August when a globe protecting a light bulb broke and the light started the straw on fire. 

With few barns properly equipped with fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems or smoke alarms, Ohio State University says fire prevention need to be a high priority to protect valuable assets stored in barns, as well as the people who work in them. 

Flames leap from the milking parlor at Dettmann Dairy as firefighters work in sub zero weather to extinguish the blaze on Jan. 13 in the town of Milford.

Fire prevention tips

Here are some ways to improve fire prevention methods on your farm provided by Ohio State University Extension. 

• Make it a point to scout for hazardous conditions around the barn. Inform everyone who works in your barn of what area are concerns for fire development, what to do in the case of a fire, and to always keep exit pathways clear.

• Establish a cleaning schedule to remove dirt and dust from areas where electrical outlets and appliances are used. Install appropriate covers on outlets and light bulbs. Extension cords should be industrial grade and checked for faults regularly. Permanent electrical wiring should be encased in conduit

• Store flammable liquids, hay, bedding, and fuel away from animals and machinery. Keep brush and trees trimmed back from the structure and maintain space between structures to prevent fire from easily spreading. 

• Some tools that are easy to install and help reduce the damage in the case of a fire include: ABC fire extinguishers in reach of high risk areas, smoke detectors with amplified sirens, and/or barn cameras equipped with audio.

Ohio State University Extension also recommends always having the contact information for your local fire department readily available in case of an emergency.

It's also recommended to check with your insurance agency to verify that you have appropriate insurance for your structures and their contents.

A second set of trained eyes looking over your barn could be the difference between life and death if there is a barn fire. Ohio State University Extension suggests asking someone from the local fire department to visit the farm and do a walk-through of the barn. 

Thankfully, there was no loss of life when our barn burned. The screaming ambulance carried an injured firefighter, not my father, as I had feared. He quietly stood at the scene and tearfully remembered all the work we had done on the barn to make improvements. The barn still stands in Washington County, owned by another farmer, who hopefully will never experience the nightmarish sight of his barn burning.