This fall, like every fall, a number of Northeast barns have gone down in flames, destroying equipment, feed and livestock, often with heavy damage to nearby buildings. But you can take a few simple steps to help prevent such losses, says George Cook, Extension farm safety specialist at University of Vermont.
1) Develop a farm fire pre-plan. It'll make it easier your local fire department to control the fire more quickly. Download a Farm Fire Pre-Plan datasheet from www.uvm.edu/extension/agriculture. Click on "Safety", then scroll down to the section on "Fire."
Provide your E911 address and a map of all the buildings, utilities, access roads and water sources on your property on the form. You also can include information on family members and employees, locations of hazardous materials and stored feed and the number, type and location of animals.
Keep one copy in your files. Give the other to your local fire department. Be sure to update annually or any time anything changes.
2) Double check supplemental heating equipment. They're one of the biggest fire risks on the farm. Old stoves may have cracks that can throw sparks, so be sure it's still safe to fire up.
Make sure all combustibles are kept at least three feet away. Do you have a fire board under the stove and in front the door so that hot embers can't fall directly on the floor? Also, is there a fire board behind it or to the side to protect the walls?
3) Got old stovepipes? They're prone to small pinholes, gaps, loose joints and even see-through thinness. Get rid of them and put up new, complete with sheet metal screws to connect each joint securely.
4) Check that chimney. When was it last cleaned? Is it sound, free of crumbling bricks, with a safe liner? If you're unsure of any of these questions, it'd be wise to contact a certified chimney sweep or mason and have it inspected. Do it now, before the heating season really hits.
5) Clean up leaves, lumber and trash from around the perimeter of every building. They provide a direct pathway for fire to enter a building. Keep in mind that, in most states, no treated material can legally be burned – only natural wood.
Many barn and outbuilding catch fire as a result of blowing embers from an outside source. These can be from burning brush piles, leaves or other refuse, which often are too near the buildings. Watch the weather and wind direction.
6) Never burn upwind of buildings! "Too many building fires," says Cook, "that I've responded to as a volunteer firefighter over the years have started just that way."
7) Got outdated wiring? Old, worn, frayed wiring and overloaded electrical systems are a prime cause of fire. "As you grow and expand your business," points out Cook, "you keep adding to the electrical load." Overloaded circuits are a real danger. When was the last time you had a certified electrician evaluate your electrical demand and service entrance panel?
Old two-wire outlets need to go. Barns and outbuildings are prone to moisture problems, meaning that all wiring needs to be properly grounded. Ground-fault circuit interrupter outlets or circuits need to be installed.