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Mechanics Corner: Fire prevention on the farm

Andy Overbay Published on 27 February 2015

Fires are awful occurrences; they leave you feeling demoralized and defeated. I submit that they are as bad as any natural disaster. After an earthquake, tornado or flood, there are often widespread calls for assistance and aid.

In most cases of natural calamities, groups from across the nation pour in to help people get back to normal or as close as possible given the circumstances. A fire is an individual disaster, singularly devastating and frequently without the public call to help.

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Luckily, many fires can be prevented, and there are steps you can take to help reduce your risk of suffering through a fire’s aftermath. Checklists are available to help you evaluate your fire-risk preparedness. One example is Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 2908-1408 by Reid Folson, farm consultant.

Structurally, some steps are probably best reviewed before the first nail is driven or the first footer is poured. Is your barn located in a visible location either to you or to neighbours? A clearly seen structure is a safer structure.

Is fire protection in the area adequate? In our area, volunteer fire fighters rule the day, but I must say they are very reliable and professional. Is the phone system reliable? Do 9-1-1 dispatchers recognize your farm and know which responders are closest?

Is there reliable access to the farm? Are the roads paved and maintained and is there a ready source of firefighting water nearby? This is one place where a dry hydrant might be a good call. Dry hydrants give firefighters access to water via a pond or lake.

Many times insurers will give you a discount on your insurance rates if a dry hydrant is installed and functional, so check into this. The topography surrounding the farm can also be a risk. If the farm is in a hilly or mountainous setting or situated in an area of heavy vegetation, access could be limited.

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Can your livestock escape rapidly without serious injury? Today’s wider and more open designs assist in this area, but if you haven’t updated your facilities in several years, this may be an issue. Still, it pays to evaluate your facility for possible choke points and also control lots beyond the facility to help control frightened animals.

Of course, the materials from which your barns or other facilities are constructed will have a major impact on fire susceptibility. One thing to consider is water supplies in frigid weather.

We almost never associate fire and cold, but winter brings increased fire risks from heating systems, and having a frozen water supply is no help in suppressing a small fire and preventing a larger one.

Another area that can assist us in fire prevention is the suppression of rodent populations. Rodents, by definition, are animals that “gnaw.”

Rodents are characterized by the presence of two pair of large, chisel-like incisors and a distinct gap between the front teeth and the chewing molars in the middle to rear of the mouth and jaw.

They are ideally suited to chew their way into your buildings, and upon gaining entry can easily destroy electrical systems, leaving bare wires in their wake. Rodents tend to move up and in to avoid detection, so this trait makes them harder to remove once they gain entry.

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One way to help prevent rodent invasions is to create a zone of occlusion. This zone of zero vegetation is approximately 18 inches wide and extends around the facility. If you want to “dress up” this zone, a thin layer of decorative stone or mulch can be used, but keep depths to below 1 inch.

Rodents see this zone as a potential area of visibility to which a predator might prey upon them, and they avoid it at all hazard. This costs virtually nothing and can be achieved with a light application of glyphosate (1 percent solution) or a good sharp hoe.

Like rodents, bird control in equipment areas is vital. Birds like to nest in protected areas such as tractor hoods and combine shields provide. Oftentimes, birds nesting in tractors select the top of the motor, filling every crack and cranny with flammable debris.

Without daily inspections and proper clean-out, a fire is a real possibility. One way we help lessen the presence of bird nesting in our equipment is to keep a feral cat or two around. Mom feeds them just enough to keep them around, but they must hunt to thrive in their environment.

Their mere presence has all but eliminated bird nests in tractor motors on our farm. The springer spaniels keep the cat population from getting out of hand, so the system stays in balance.

In the shop, routine clean-ups will go a long way toward fire prevention. Oily rags or other flammable solutions or debris left about are always a threat when sparks from the grinder or welder fly.

It is also notable that low-voltage situations cause fires, especially around electric motors, which pull high amps in the starter winding. These high-amperage strains will result in excessive heat build-up and can cause fires, especially in periods of emergency generator use.

A wise friend of our family also had an interesting point when it came to equipment storage. Earlier this year, we discussed farm shop and equipment storage designs.

Our friend suggested that it is wise to not store all your equipment in one building … all due to fire risk. If you have all your equipment in one place, a fire has the opportunity to destroy every piece of equipment you own.

Finally, if you have fire extinguishers and other fire suppression aids, have them tested and certified on a regular basis. Fires do not allow their victims to take timeouts and regroup. Good luck favours the prepared, so please take steps to reduce or eliminate your risk of fire.  PD

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

Andrew Overbay
  • Andy Overbay
  • Extension Agent
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension

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