Animal rights groups in Canada are demanding action after the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) reported that eight large fires in January killed almost 53,000 animals.
Ontario was especially hard-hit. On Jan. 4, a fire at a harness-racing training centre near Guelph killed 43 horses. On Jan. 15, another fire in Mount Forest killed 13 Arabian horses. On the 17th, a fire near Delaware killed 500 milking goats and 30 head of cattle and on the 19th, 2,100 pigs died in a fire near Parkhill.
"Sadly, some of the simplest protection strategies recommended by farm and fire experts across the country are still not standard practice on Canadian farms," says Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the CFHS. "These tragedies don't need to happen."
Cartwright says that "despite the high risk of fire -- especially in the colder months when electrical circuits are taxed -- most barns do not have sprinkler systems or industrial-grade smoke or heat detectors installed…Without this key prevention equipment, there is often nothing to be done once fire crews arrive on scene. Animals trapped inside an inferno can rarely be rescued."
The society is calling on the provincial and territorial governments to update building and fire codes, "requiring that all barns be outfitted with industrial-grade smoke and heat detectors as well as sprinkler systems."
John Maaskant, chair of Farm & Food Care Ontario and a chicken farmer in Clinton, Ont. says installing a sprinkler system "isn't a workable solution in many cases although that idea has been suggested often lately. Farms generally source their water from wells with pumps that require electricity. If power is turned off to the barn to fight the fire, the wells and water supply would no longer operate."
Maaskant says many news stories and editorials have said that more needs to be done to prevent barn fires. "Ontario's farming community couldn't agree more," he says. "Work is always being done on prevention methods and on improved barn designs that are better able to withstand such threats."
He says barn fires are "one of the most challenging things that first responders can face. Arriving at a structural barn fire with animals poses unique challenges. These can be large structures in rural areas with no access to fire hydrants or a continuous supply of water for firefighting. Many first responders are not familiar with barn design or animal handling, making the scene even more dangerous and challenging than a typical structure fire."
Dean Anderson, past chairperson of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, told The London Free Press that he recalled a fire at his grandfather's cattle barn. "As fast as my cousins took the cattle out, they ran back in the barn because they felt secure there. They all died huddled in one corner of the barn," he said.
Maaskant says during the last decade, "Ontario farmers have helped to pay for and deliver training to over 1,000 first responders (including police and firefighters) on emergency responses to barn fires and accidents involving livestock. Many rural fire departments, staffed with volunteer firefighters, are also organizing barn fire education programs for their responders so that they better understand how barns in their coverage area are built and the types of livestock found within."
Despite recent tragedies, Maaskant says the number of barn fires in Ontario has decreased in recent years.
A group called Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farmed Animals (CETFA) has launched an online petition calling for the National Farm Animal Care Council, which establishes standards for animal care, to establish better codes of practice for fire prevention and suppression.
The petition says, "Barn fires are highly preventable simply by making a few design adjustments or retrofitting them into existing barns, and taking common sense steps to prevent fires in high risk locations."
These include separating electronic installations from the rest of the building with fireproof walls or compartments; building barns with non-flammable materials; installing heat and smoke detectors and sprinklers; ensuring regular maintenance of electrical equipment and systems; and developing protocols to co-ordinate with fire departments and veterinarians to prevent further animal suffering.
Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshall says the leading causes of barn fires are mechanical/electrical failure; careless smoking; careless use of equipment such as arc welders, cutting torches or grinders; and improperly constructed building features or systems, such as a heating appliance that is too close to a combustible building.
"The cost of preventative systems is high, but so too are the devastating losses we've been hearing about," says Cartwright. "Even if fire happens once in a farmer's lifetime, the investment in a proper detection and fire control system will have been well worth it -- preventing loss of life, heartache and suffering."
The CFHS has published a factsheet entitled Farm Safety Tips for Farm Management on its website.
Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs offers Reducing the Risk of Fire on Your Farm.
Farm & Food Care Ontario has a fact sheet for first responders, Barn Fires Involving Livestock (http://www.farmfoodcare.org/pdfs/animal-resources/BarnFires-FirstResponders-09.pdf).