Barn Fires: Preventable Tragedies
Every day, 150 million animals are killed for food around the world. This adds up to 56 billion yearly. Keep in mind that this number only includes the number of land animals we farm. While the sheer scale of animal farming is a fact that few people are aware of, an even more ignored fact is that millions of animals die every year due to barn fires. There is very little information available on how many barn fires occur, and even less is known about why. Most of the information about barn fires available comes from a few countries, such as the U.S, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, and Belgium. Nevertheless, In this blog I will cover what is known and what needs to be done to prevent these tragedies.
A relatively in depth 2018 investigation done by the Animal Welfare Institute in the U.S, investigated how many barn fires occur in the country. They also looked at the biggest causes of barn fires, and included recommendations to prevent them. The results were shocking: over a period of 5 years (2013-2017) a total of more than 2 million animals were reported to be killed in barn fires. Digging into the statistics, the number of animals reported per year vary greatly. For example, 2013 only accounts for 4% of the total deaths; Meanwhile, in 2017, three very large fires resulted in the death of 1.4 million animals. In 2014, two fires caused 430,000 fatalities. These statistics show in stark detail how one incident at a large industrial farm can mean the tragic death of many thousands of innocent lives.
The investigation from the AWI also reported that seventeen different species of animals were victims of barn fires. These include chickens, turkeys and other birds, such as ducks and geese. Pigs, cows, goats and sheep are also among the victims, along with, although in lesser numbers, llamas, alpacas, rabbits and donkeys. The vast majority (a shocking 95%) of animals that die in barn fires are chickens. This is likely due to the fact that chickens are tightly packed in industrial barns by the tens of thousands. A single fire can kill up to 500,000 chickens.
Unfortunately, it is very likely that the numbers reported in AWI’s investigation are conservative. This is because when a fire is covered in the news, if it is covered at all, the number of animals killed is sometimes not included. Additionally, farmers and industrial farming operations are not required to report on farm animal fatalities. Even more shockingly, barns are not mandated to include an automatic fire detection system. There is one code by The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the NFPA 150, that gives non-binding recommendations on fire safety in animal housing. However, it is not mandatory and municipalities can choose to adopt it or not. It doesn’t apply to agricultural animals housed outdoors or agricultural animals in residential-type housing.
To prevent barn fires, it is important to know what is causing them. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, there is very little information on why barn fires occur. If a fire is reported or covered in the news, a lot of the time the cause is not mentioned, and investigations into why a fire happened – which can take a long time – are likewise not often reported on. Therefore, when a fire is covered in the news, the cause is often not known yet, or an update is rarely provided. Additionally, fires in a barn are very destructive, leaving only a pile of blackened rubble and ash, making it hard to uncover what started the fire. Out of the 326 fires that caused fatalities during the 5 year period of the investigation, only 106 of the cases had a known cause of a likely cause. In the cases where the cause was known, the vast majority were started by electrical heating devices and other electrical devices.
The fact that heating devices are the main cause of fires also explains why fires were more frequent in the winter months. 36.8% and 28.5% of the fires occurred in winter and fall, respectively, as opposed to 21.1% in the spring and 13.5% in the summer. It is likely this seasonal difference occurred due to an increased need for heating in the colder months.
One would suspect that most fires occur in the states with the highest numbers of industrial farms such as North Carolina or Alabama. However, it turns out that the colder states suffer more barn fires, regardless of whether they are top producers. Barn fires were most frequent in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. This is likely because these states experience very cold winters and therefore farmers use heating devices in the barns more often to keep the animals warm.
Of course, there are simple ways to prevent barn fires. Installing a sprinkler system in the barn is a very effective suppression system for putting out fires, and all that is needed is a water source, and the economic will to do so. Other methods of barn fire prevention include:
- Fire department inspections. To ensure that all electrical systems are in order and to map out the best emergency plan.
- Fire extinguishers on site. Staff should be trained on how to use them.
- Smoke, heat and/or carbon monoxide detection systems. Offer an early warning.
- Fire drills and staff trainings. Employees might be able to extinguish the fire.
Unfortunately, these systems can be costly, and since none of these prevention measures are mandatory farmers usually don’t install them, even though it should be a priority. When a fire does happen it not only destroys the whole barn, it takes the lives of thousands of innocent animals in the most horrible way imaginable. From a commerce point of view, it can put farmers out of business, as damage costs can reach into the millions of dollars. It is a no brainer that a nationwide mandatory protocol for fire prevention should be put into action. Smaller farmers should receive aid if they lack the funds for such preventative measures. Additionally, since fires are mainly caused by extra heating and / or faulty electrical, more attention should be paid to the construction of the barns.
As animal advocates, however, it’s not hard to see that the main problem is that farmed animals are not seen as sentient individual beings that deserve to live. They are seen as a commodity for humans to use, property without free will. It is essential that this way of thinking is shifted so that all animals (human and non-human) are seen as equal. More steps would be taken to prevent the all too frequent barn fires.
In other countries the situation is not much better. Over the past ten years a shocking 1,5 million animals lost their lives in fires In The Netherlands. In 2018, 122.000 animals were killed in a barn fire in The Netherlands, the highest number yet. Here too, there are no mandatory fire prevention measures in barns holding farmed animals. This has sparked some protests in The Netherlands; the public doesn’t understand why these tragedies keep happening and yet nothing is being done to change it. A big part of the problem is the mentality that animals are property. This way of thinking becomes obvious when a barn fire is covered in the news and it is reported that there were “no victims.” Animals simply aren’t counted, and their deaths are seen as just part of doing business.
The situation is similar in Belgium and Canada. There is no reliable information on just how many animals die because of barn fires, as again, farmers are not required to report numbers. Additionally, there are no mandatory safety measures. Meanwhile, in Germany, fire alarms and fire sprinkler systems in barns are mandatory. This could explain the lower number of barn fires. Other countries should take this as an example.
There is a lot of room for improvement to ensure that barn fires are a thing of the past; indeed, animal advocates reading this may be surprised to learn just how little is in place currently, which means that there is so much that can be done to immediately improve the situation. Firstly fire prevention should be a priority, and mandatory. Barns should be considered high occupancy buildings, since they often house thousands or tens of thousands of non-human animals. Additionally, each country should keep track of why these fires occur, and the number of victims involved in a database accessible to the public. These are all measures for the time being however, as the aim should be to stop farming animals completely, in favour of a plant-based future. A future without industrial animal barns would also mean a world without barn fires.