Barn fires cause immense suffering, killing anywhere from hundreds of thousands to over a million farm animals every year in the United States alone. Some farm animals die almost immediately as fires burn through the barns, while others have to be euthanized later due to severe burns and smoke inhalation. This has a devastating impact not only on the animals who suffer, but also on farmers and producers that must rebuild after such a tragic event or lose their livelihood altogether.
Since 2013, the Animal Welfare Institute has compiled information through media reports on the prevalence and causes of barn fires leading to farm animal deaths. To date, over 5.8 million farm animals have perished in barn fires. Poultry accounted for 97 percent of those deaths—primarily egg-laying hens and meat chickens. The year 2020 proved to be the most devastating year for barn fires since AWI began tracking these events; over 1.6 million animals were killed, 1.3 million of whom were hens on commercial egg operations.
Findings from our analysis of media reports during the years 2018 through 2021 suggest that the biggest risk factors for barn fires are malfunctioning heating devices and other kinds of electrical issues. Out of the 539 total barn fires that caused farm animal fatalities during this three-year period, the cause or likely cause of the incident was reported in 179 cases. In 65 percent of those 179 cases, the confirmed or suspected cause was a malfunctioning heating device and other electrical issue. This significant percentage suggests that heating equipment and electrical systems should be frequently checked and—if needed—repaired or replaced.
Most fatal barn fires occurred in colder states, particularly those in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast. New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had the highest number of barn fires, respectively. The amount of cold weather a state experienced appeared to be a greater factor in the prevalence of barn fires than the intensity of a state’s animal agriculture production.
While weather seemed to play a primary role in the prevalence of barn fires, this was not the case in terms of the total number of deaths reported by state. What distinguished the states with the highest total fatalities is that, in each, one or two catastrophic fires took the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals at once and accounted for nearly the entire death toll. Even in the one cold-weather state—a state that ranked high in both number of barn fires and total fatalities—two of the state’s 42 fires accounted for 96 percent of the total deaths.
No farm animal deserves to die in a barn fire. Thankfully, there are a number of steps farmers can take—from improving everyday operational protocols to investing in structural and facility renovations—to help prevent barn fires and promote fire safety. To minimize the risk of barn fires, AWI recommends farm owners implement the following fire protection strategies:
Annual inspections performed by the fire department can help ensure that all electrical systems on the farm are working properly and that the barns are free of fire hazards. This is also a great opportunity for local fire personnel and other emergency responders to familiarize themselves with the operation, identify potential hazards, locate electric panels and water sources, and ultimately improve their response should a fire occur.
Proactive planning is the best way to ensure all parties are prepared in the event of an emergency. Planning should include mapping out the operation and identifying fire hazards and potential sources of ignition, documenting contact information for both emergency response units and key farm personnel, and detailing specific procedures to follow should a fire break out. If practicable, the emergency action plan should include a process for evacuating animals in case of a fire.
Strategically place fire extinguishers throughout the facility, including near electrical panels and other potential ignition sources, and ensure they are checked at least annually to confirm they are in good working order.
It is critical that all farm employees are familiar with the operation’s emergency action plan so they can quickly respond when a fire breaks out, either by attempting to extinguish the fire and/or alerting the fire department before it overwhelms the facility. Annual fire safety training, including routine fire drills and fire extinguisher training, will ensure employees are best prepared to respond to a fire.
Create multiple access points for emergency vehicles to reach facilities and ensure that emergency/fire lanes are clear at all times and wide enough for emergency vehicles. It is recommended that emergency lanes be at least 12 feet wide.
Many barn fires occur in remote, rural areas where fire hydrants are not always readily accessible. In these cases, water is often trucked in, potentially wasting time in a situation where every minute counts. To assist firefighters with access to water, large operations should install on-site water storage units.
Installation of a sprinkler system is the most effective suppression system for putting out fires and may offer the best chance for reducing fatalities. Depending on the type and location of the facility, there are a number of wet, dry, or pre-action sprinkler systems on the market that provide different benefits. The cost and maintenance of each system varies, so farmers should always consult an expert to determine which type of system is best for their barn(s).
Malfunctioning heating devices and other electrical issues caused or were suspected to cause 65 percent of barn fires for which a cause was identified. Be sure to frequently check and—if needed—repair or replace heating and other electrical equipment. For more information on safety precautions for electrical systems visit https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/fire-prevention-and-safety-measures-around-the-farm/.
To the extent possible, buildings—particularly, interior walls and ceilings—should be constructed using fire-resistant materials that have low flame spread ratings (materials categorized as “Class A” by the National Fire Protection Association [NFPA] and other professional entities). Installation of firestops and firewalls where practicable is also recommended. When constructing multiple animal housing facilities on one site, adequate distance should separate each building to help prevent a fire from spreading to multiple buildings and allow first responders to access different parts of the building. The NFPA recommends a minimum distance of 60 feet between each commercial animal housing facility on a site.
Early fire detection systems such as smoke, heat, or flame detectors that alert key farm personnel and local first responders may help initiate a quicker response, mitigate damage, prevent the fire from spreading to additional buildings, and save human and animal lives. At least one of these systems should be professionally installed and regularly tested. Consult an expert to determine which detection systems are best for your operation.