Prepare to protect your farm from fire

John Shutske
Fires on farms and in rural areas are common and can be more damaging than urban/suburban fires due to the distances from fire departments, and the fact that most farms have large quantities of flammable material present.

Fires on farms and in rural areas are common and can be more damaging than urban/suburban fires because of distances from fire departments. And, most farms have large quantities of flammable material present. This includes fuel (gasoline, diesel), lubricants, hydraulic fluid, hay, bedding and wood construction.

The National Fire Protection Association suggests that nationally, we have about 850 reported barn fires annually resulting in nearly $30 million in damage. Farmers also report about 700-800 fires each year on grain combines, tractors and other machines with average property damage of nearly $15,000 per fire.

Since fire risks on farms are significant, prevention is critical. It is also crucial to equip every farm building and machine with correctly chosen, located, and maintained fire extinguishers.

Because of the nature of agriculture, farm fires can easily include three types of situations—combustible solids (paper, wood, hay, straw, bedding, etc.), liquid fuels (gasoline, diesel fuel, hydraulic fluid), and fires that involve live electrical circuits and components.

Properly selected fire extinguishers can be used to extinguish small fires or limit damage until firefighters arrive on scene.

The best type of extinguisher for handling these three categories of fires is the multi-purpose “ABC” dry chemical extinguisher. The “ABC” compound means the extinguisher will work on Class A solid materials (like hay, crop residue, etc.), as well as Class B flammable liquids. The “C” designation means that the extinguishing chemical is non-conductive and can be used on electrical components.

Since farm fires can spread fast, it is critical to locate extinguishers a short distance from high-risk areas and within easy reach. For ABC extinguishers, if a fire breaks out, it is best to have an extinguisher mounted within 50-feet of the hazard and no more than five feet off the ground. Look for an extinguisher that meets the testing standards of Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and avoid others including those that rely on “new high-tech chemicals” or other products that may not be fully proven for farm use or approved by UL.

We generally recommend 4A:40B:C extinguishers for all key farm locations. A decent sized farm might require a half-dozen or more extinguishers. Crucial locations include the farm shop, livestock buildings, parlors, home and all pieces of self-propelled equipment.

The first designation (4A) means that the extinguisher has the equivalent ability to put out a Class A fire as five gallons of water (four times 1.25 gallons). The 40B designation means that if you have a burning surface (because of spilled or leaking fuel or oil), the extinguisher has the ability to extinguish a 40 square-foot surface. The “C” designation simply means the chemical is non-conductive. On grain combines and choppers, having access to two extinguishers is preferred in case the fire is big or if one of the units cannot be reached safely.

All extinguishers should be checked regularly (monthly is recommended). Always look for:

  • Pressure gauge reads in the “safe zone” indicating adequate pressure.
  •  A safety “pin” and tamper-proof seal is in place to insure the extinguisher has not been “used”.
  • Nozzle end is clear of debris, spider webs, etc.

It is also a good idea to remove the extinguisher from its hanging bracket and gently rotate the unit to ensure that the powder inside remains free-flowing and does not cake or clump as a result of vibration or sitting for long periods of time.

Never try to “test” a charged extinguisher—the small amount of powder that shoots out will accumulate in the seal of the unit and make it impossible to maintain pressure. Even a one-second blast of powder will cause the extinguisher to lose all pressure in a few hours or days rendering it useless.

It’s also a great idea to train employees on farms at the time they start working for you on extinguisher use and at least once a year thereafter. Sometimes local volunteer fire departments will host demonstrations or hands-on training events and can be great sources of information.

Your local fire department may also have the necessary equipment to fill and recharge a used extinguisher and can help you “inspect” your extinguishers and insure that you are well protected.  Your farm insurer can also be an important source of information on fire prevention and protection.

If a fire breaks out, it is first critical to call for help. Many farm fires will require more than a simple hand-held extinguisher. After you have made sure help on the way, most extinguishers require that you pull the safety pin (usually breaking a plastic seal). Hold the flexible nozzle and approach the fire carefully, always having a means of rapid exit. Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire; squeeze the nozzle; and “sweep” the powder from side to side. Your goal is to get at the base of the flames, smothering the fuel or interrupting the chemical reaction of the fire.

NEVER put yourself at personal risk. If the fire grows larger or simply does not respond, get away from the fire immediately and into a safe location and wait for the fire department to arrive.

John Shutske

John Shutske is the Extension Ag Safety & Health Specialist

University of Wisconsin Extension