Fire safety always an issue for Maritime farmers

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By Joan LeBlanc - Special to Farm Focus
Reducing the risk of barn fires is always an issue for farmers, but it’s even more of a challenge in the winter months.

“There’s so much more humidity in cold weather, especially with pigs and chickens. You’re trying to heat the barns without overloading circuits … keep pipes from freezing; you’ve got a lot of hay stored... it’s a big worry,” Stephen Becker, who owns a beef cattle operation near Port Elgin, N.B., said recently.

And he knows first-hand how quickly those worries can become a reality. On a bitterly cold day in late December 2002 he and his family watched in shock as two of their barns containing 300 pigs and a year’s supply of hay go up in flames. Later investigations revealed the cause of the blaze to be an exterior electrical line arcing as it hit the barn’s steel roof during strong winds.

And just weeks later as Becker was working to erect rafters on a new barn he got the news that an older brother’s hog operation near Cap Pelé was engulfed in fire; sad news for a family who had also experienced the loss of yet another brother’s hog operation in the area several months earlier.

“My wife still looks out and checks the barns every night before she goes to bed. That awful experience never leaves you,” Becker admitted.

While many media outlets have been reporting an increase in barn fires across the country, not everyone is in agreement.

“I’m not sure about New Brunswick, but actually, the numbers from Ontario show there’s been a decline in those numbers over the past few years,” Mike Bouma, president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, said last week. Bouma operates a 250-head cattle operation at Robertville, near Bathurst, N.B.

Regardless of statistics, he stressed the need for vigilance when it comes to maintaining safety issues on the farm.

He advises that farmers be aware of those aspects of their buildings that could be cause for concern, such as wiring and up-to-date fire extinguishers.

“I’ve read in some articles that barns should have sprinkler systems installed, but the reality is that most farms are in rural areas and as such use their own wells. In the event of a fire, the power would be disrupted in the barn so a sprinkler system wouldn’t work anyway,” he said.

As for the AANB membership, Bouma said that fire prevention is just another agricultural safety issue they all deal with every day.

Helping farmers pick up the pieces after a fire is one part of Donnie Saunders’ job.  An insurance adjuster with South Eastern Mutual Insurance in Riverview, N.B., he deals with all types of claims, including those for barn fires. But, he notes, most farmers don’t have their barns insured for anywhere near the actual cost of rebuilding it.

“Around here most farmers insure their barns for a few thousand dollars, but they do seem to have significant coverage on the contents, whether it is livestock, farm produce, machinery or equipment. It’s not cheap. Everything costs so much today, it’s costly to replace a barn and its contents so the premium naturally reflects those costs. It’s the same with any other building, a home or a barn – fire prevention is vitally important,” he said.

Fire prevention tips on farms:

-       Make sure your local fire department is aware of the layout of your barns and knows the priority areas in the event of a fire, including areas where explosives or corrosives are stored

-       Have electrical wiring inspected regularly by a qualified electrician

-       Use only industrial strength wire for both electrical systems and heating cords

-       Use specialty lights to prevent overheating in hay and grain storage areas

-       Do not misuse extension cords by overloading circuits or using multiple cords in one string

-       Ensure no heating systems are located near combustible materials or walls

-       Check electrical panels regularly for rodent nests and any subsequent damage by rodents or other small invasive varmints

-       Avoid improper usage of equipment such as arc welders, grinders or cutting torches

-       Install fire doors

-       Ensure proper ventilation of grain handling and feed preparation areas

-       Ensure proper storage of liquid fuel and propane

-       Regularly remove dust from electronic equipment

-       Do not store flammable or combustible materials near electrical panels

-       Ensure the proper number of fire extinguishers are in place and are inspected regularly

-       Repair old unworking or damaged electrical fixtures

Ensure all heat lamps are surrounded by non-combustible materials such as concrete, tile or steel

-       Conduct regular inspections of all machinery and equipment

-       Educate family members and farm employees to fire safety concerns

-       No smoking in or near buildings or where flammable vapours are present

Organizations: Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, South Eastern Mutual Insurance

Geographic location: Maritime, Port Elgin, New Brunswick Ontario Robertville Bathurst Riverview

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