Extinguishing Barn Fires: An Urgent Animal Advocacy Issue
Each year in the U.S., over nine billion farmed animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered to end up on someone’s plate. While the horrors of America’s industrial, factory-farming system are becoming more widely known among the general public, one terrible byproduct of how we confine these animals seems to fly under the radar: barn fires. Several years ago, Faunalytics published an eye-opening blog based on the findings of a first-of-its-kind report—Barn Fires: A Deadly Threat to Farm Animals—prepared by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), for which I serve as the Farm Animal Program’s policy associate. Earlier this year, AWI published an update to this report covering the four years between 2018 and 2021, and I am dismayed to say the issue seems to have only gotten worse.
During this time, a staggering 2.99 million farmed animals were killed in barn fires across the country. Compared with figures in AWI’s first investigation of the issue, the average number of animals annually killed in barn fires increased by 36%. During 2020, which seemed like an unprecedented year for, well, just about everything, the death toll from barn fires was no different. Over 1.6 million animals were burned alive in barn fires, making it the worst year since AWI began monitoring the issue.
It seems as if no farmed animal species has been spared from barn fires’ destruction. Chickens, turkeys, and other poultry animals were killed at the highest rate, followed by pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and—in lesser numbers—horses, rabbits, alpacas, and donkeys. Since AWI began tracking these incidents in 2013, the death toll from fires has risen to 5.8 million animals, all of whom were sentient, individual beings who undoubtedly suffered tremendously. It’s important to note that this number is a conservative estimate. Because fire departments and municipalities are not required to report the number of animals killed in fires, we must gather these statistics via media reports, which don’t always account for the full scale of the tragedy or provide the exact number of animals killed.
When taking a deeper dive into the statistics, it is clear that the strikingly high number of fatalities is primarily due to a number of truly catastrophic fires on large factory farms. According to AWI’s report, the 10 largest fires between 2018 and 2021 (roughly 2% of the total) were responsible for 75 percent of farm animal deaths.
Sadly, though unsurprisingly, the vast majority of animals killed in barn fires were chickens. I say “unsurprisingly” because, once you take into account the sheer volume of chickens consumed in the U.S. each year, it makes sense that they would be impacted by this issue at a much higher rate than other animals. According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, chickens account for almost 96% of the 9 billion-plus farmed animals raised for food in the U.S. annually. For Super Bowl Sunday alone, the chicken industry anticipated that 1.42 billion chicken wings would be consumed in a single day! As harrowing as these numbers sound, they fail to account for the 325 million hens used to produce eggs each year. Given these numbers, it’s no wonder a single fire that kills a quarter of a million birds is considered inconsequential to this industry.
From 2018 to 2021, over 2.7 million chickens (including egg-laying hens and chickens raised for meat) were killed in fires. Although egg-laying hens are outnumbered by chickens raised for meat in the U.S., they account for a larger share of barn fire fatalities, likely because they are confined at higher rates: A single egg-production barn can house 100,000 hens. With so many animals packed into a building with no ability to escape, a huge loss of life is inevitable if a fire erupts. From 2018 to 2021, the six largest fires—each of which involved between 250,000 and 400,000 animals—all occurred at commercial egg operations, killing nearly 1.8 million hens in total.
During this period, there appeared to be an uptick in fires at large, cage-free egg production facilities in particular. Among the six largest fires mentioned above, five occurred at cage-free operations, where the hens—though free of cages—are still packed together in huge numbers. Environmental factors associated with the nature of industrial-scale, cageless housing may well have contributed to these fires. After all, 100,000 chickens flying and flapping around in one building among litter and debris generates a lot of dust. In fact, research has documented dust levels up to nine times higher in industrial cage-free housing compared to caged housing. Whatever welfare benefits may accrue from going cage-free at this scale, it seems likely that this aspect of cage-free production contributes to the number and severity of fires in large, crowded barns.
Though barn fires kill chickens in the greatest numbers, pigs do not fare much better when fire breaks out. They too are subject to extreme confinement, packed in barns by the thousands with no access to the outdoors. From 2018 to 2021, the five largest fires on pig confinement operations killed nearly 42,000 pigs.
In most cases, the cause of barn fires is either unknown or still under investigation at the time of reporting. Therefore, the determined cause is rarely, if ever, provided. Some, however, are known or suspected to have resulted from electrical malfunctions or defective or improperly placed heating devices. Because of this, it is no surprise that these incidents were more frequent in winter months and that colder Midwestern and Northeastern states experienced the greatest number of barn fires. The five states with the highest number of barn fires were New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
No farmed animal deserves to burn alive in a barn fire, especially when it could have been prevented. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has developed a code specifically for animal housing that is intended to protect animals, including those on farms. While not perfect, the NFPA 150 code currently serves as the gold standard, as it is the only set of standards designed to protect farmed animals from barn fires in the U.S. Unfortunately, its reach is limited, as the code is not mandatory unless specifically adopted by a state or municipality. As of now, few jurisdictions have opted to do so.
At the individual level, there are a number of steps producers can take to help prevent barn fires and promote fire safety. These steps vary significantly in terms of both the financial investments and the time and energy needed to implement them. Operational changes that can promote fire safety include enlisting professionals to perform annual inspections, developing an emergency action plan, equipping the facility with fire extinguishers, instituting frequent fire prevention training for employees, and conducting routine fire drills. Structural enhancements that can help prevent fires include installing heat/smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, installing on-site water storage units to assist firefighters, using fire-resistant materials when renovating or constructing facilities, and, of course, frequently checking, repairing, and replacing heating and other electrical equipment.
While these actions would certainly help mitigate the problem in the near term, what this issue seemingly boils down to is that the lives of individual animals matter little to the industry that produces them on factory farms by the billions. Why expend money or resources to protect what the industry views as a “small” number of animals, when the loss of a few hundred thousand has negligible impacts on production and profits? This mentality, along with other reasons rooted in how society perceives farmed animals, helps explain why they are offered considerably less legal protection—both generally and as it relates to fire prevention—than other classes of animals living in confinement.
This is painfully evident when you consider laws recently passed and situations where they didn’t. In 2015, in response to several pet store fires, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring pet stores to install fire sprinkler systems. In 2016, California passed a similar law with respect to pet boarding facilities. In 2019, in the aftermath of a fire at a kennel that killed 29 dogs, Illinois passed a law requiring kennels to either keep staff on board at all times or install a sprinkler system or fire alarm that alerts local authorities. The individual responsible for that particular fire was even charged and sentenced to jail time. Two years later, when a fire at a pig confinement operation in the same state killed 10,000 pigs, no laws were even introduced to prevent it from happening again, nor were animal cruelty charges brought in response. While the highlighted laws are a great victory for animals and should be celebrated, they also speak to the difference between what society is willing to accept with farmed animals versus companion animals. As animal advocates, we should demand protections for all animals under the law.
When advocating on behalf of farmed animals, we are going up against a powerful industry that has no qualms about stymieing progress, as well as a society that views one class of animals less worthy of protection because they are raised for food. It certainly makes securing protections for farmed animals a monumental task. But given how many animals die each year under horrible circumstances in barn fires, it’s fair to say the stakes are incredibly high. It is crucial that animal advocates continue to elevate this issue and prioritize advancing solutions. Otherwise, millions more farmed animals will meet a similar, gruesome fate.