Barn Fires A Concern
for Ontario Farmers
Questions and Answers to Barn Fires and Fires in Farm Structures
Table of Contents
- Why are there concerns about barn fires?
- What are the main causes of fires?
- What are the primary sources of ignition?
- Why is electrical distribution equipment such a common cause of ignition?
- What steps can be taken to minimize or eliminate the leading causes
- What equipment maintenance steps can be taken within existing livestock
- What general maintenance steps can be taken around existing livestock
- What steps can be taken to minimize fire spread in farm buildings to
aid firefighters in containing and extinguishing the fire?
Barn fires are a major concern for Ontario farmers. The evolution
towards large-scale farm operations has further heightened the need
to address the problem of barn fires and fires in large farm structures.
In 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)
formed a Technical Advisory Committee on Farm Fires to address the
fire safety risks to farm workers and emergency responders. The
purpose of the committee was to reduce the potential for life and/or
property loss by identifying best practices in the industry and
potential changes to regulations.
Members of the committee included:
This document, created by the Technical Advisory Committee, provides
answers to many industry questions.
Why are there concerns about barn fires?
As farms have grown larger, associated farm buildings have increased
in size and value. As a result,
when the large structures catch fire they prove more difficult
to extinguish and the financial losses are significantly greater.
Data from the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency
Management indicates the following structure fire incidents for
the period 2008-2014:
- 2008: 184 fire incidents, $30.3 million loss
- 2009: 186 fire incidents, $25.45 million loss
- 2010: 164 fire incidents, $29.4 million loss
- 2011: 186 fire incidents, $35.96 million loss
- 2012: 136 fire incidents, $16 million loss
- 2013: 157 fire incidents, $31.8 million loss
- 2014: 150 fire incidents, $28.4 million loss
These costs include those associated with building structures,
but not equipment, agricultural products or livestock. Luckily,
to date, there has not been loss of human life associated with
any of these fires.
Figure 1. Historic barn on fire, picture
courtesy of John Johnson.
What are the main causes of fires?
The Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management
has provided data for the cause of fires for the years 2008-2014.
In each year, the leading causes for preventable, determined fires
misuse of ignition source/equipment
The cause of fire for approximately 40 per cent of cases was
reported as undetermined. This was due to the complete loss of
the structure and contents, making it very difficult to determine
What are the primary sources of ignition?
The data suggests that the primary sources of ignition fall within
the following classes:
miscellaneous (chemical reactions, such as spontaneous combustion
electrical distribution equipment (circuit wiring, distribution
equipment, extension cords etc.)
heating equipment (central heating, flue pipe, space heaters,
open flame (cutting/welding, blow torch, smokers articles
Why is electrical distribution equipment such
a common cause of ignition?
The insurance industry and the Electrical Safety Authority have
investigated this matter. The corrosive environment found inside
livestock barns has been determined to be the leading cause of
degradation or failure of electrical equipment. The degradation
is typically corrosion of the exposed metal components, i.e. wires,
connections, etc. The corrosion increases the resistance at these
points, reducing the flow of electricity through the circuit.
More importantly, the increased resistance results in more of
the electrical energy being converted to heat. As the corrosion
levels continue to increase, the heat generated can rise to ignition
temperatures of materials surrounding the equipment.
Figure 2. Barn on fire, photo courtesy
of Randy Drysdale.
What steps can be taken to minimize or eliminate
the leading causes of ignition?
The Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) issued Bulletin 22-3-1
in July 2008 requiring all electrical equipment installed in animal
confinement areas in barns meet the requirements of Category 1
locations (high humidity) and Category 2 locations (corrosive
liquids and vapours). Their bulletin also specifies types of material
required in these locations (for example copper conductors and
The ESA also recommended that all non-essential equipment and
equipment incorporating over current devices be installed in locations
separated from the livestock confinement areas and supplied with
clean, dry temperature controlled air. See www.esasafe.com for more information.
The construction of separate electrical/mechanical rooms to house
electrical service panels and similar equipment is a best practice
because it achieves the following:
What equipment maintenance steps can be taken within existing livestock
Have a qualified electrician do regular inspections of electrical
and mechanical equipment, checking for signs of deterioration
and/or corrosion of equipment in livestock confinement buildings.
All items that are deemed to be unsafe or questionable should
be repaired or replaced immediately.
Some insurance companies have been conducting inspections of
electrical equipment (such as panels and plugs) using infrared
cameras to look for hot spots (overheating) as a way to detect
Figure 3. Infrared picture of electrical
box components. This picture appears courtesy of Randy Drysdale.
What general maintenance steps can be taken around existing livestock
Perform regular housekeeping activities around buildings to remove
potential combustible materials. This can include mowing of vegetation
and the regular removal of rubbish inside and around buildings.
As well, all trees that are in close proximity to buildings should
be trimmed or removed.
Properly site and manage on-farm fuel storage facilities away
from buildings. This ensures flammable vapours released during
refuelling of vehicles or filling of storages are not drawn into
the farm buildings, but dissipate into the atmosphere.
What steps can be taken to minimize fire spread
in farm buildings to aid firefighters in containing and extinguishing
The inclusion of effective fire stops in large farm buildings
and an all season road around the entire building site to allow
good access for fire fighting equipment are two initial steps
that can be taken.
The National Farm Building Code of Canada (NFBCC) specifies a
maximum floor area (compartment size) for farm buildings with
low human occupancy. For a single-storey barn, the maximum floor
area is 4,800 metres squared (m2) (51,600 square
feet (sq. ft.)). For a two-storey barn, the maximum floor area
is 2,400 m2 (25,800 sq. ft.). The compartment
size must be restricted to these sizes by incorporating appropriate
fire separations that have a rating of at least one hour.
The NFBCC (1995) also specifies that concealed spaces in ceilings,
roof or attics shall be separated by fire stops so that no dimension
of such space exceeds 30 metres (100 feet).
The Ontario Building Code prohibits the use of exposed foamed
plastic insulation on interior surfaces of buildings. This combustible
material must be covered or protected by an appropriate fire rated
material if it is employed in a building.
An all season roadway capable of supporting weight of heavy equipment
should be constructed around the farm building site and maintained
so that it is accessible 365 days of the year.
All buildings should be equipped with a minimum five pound ABC
fire extinguisher at each exit and in all mechanical and feed
rooms. If there is a standby generator housed in the building,
the room housing the generator should be equipped with a minimum
10 pound ABC fire extinguisher.
Please refer to the following OMAFRA resources for additional
information on building code regulations:
The Technical Advisory Committee on Farm Fires published a book
titled "Reducing the Risk of Fire on
your Farm." The book includes a number of recommendations
to prevent and reduce the impact of fires on the farm.
Figure 4. After the fire. Note the size
of the excavator in relation to the barn. This picture appears
courtesy of Randy Drysdale.
OMAFRA has many resources that can help you to plan for safer
farm buildings and storages.