By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Earlier this month, an explosion at a dairy in Dimmitt, Texas, made headlines that shocked the nation. More than 18,000 cows died and a worker was left in critical condition. Methane was first to be blamed. As it turned out, overheated equipment was the culprit.
The Dimmitt fire was unusual in its scale. By comparison, according to a USA Today analysis, the largest number of cows killed in a single fire between 2018 and 2021 in the U.S. was 548.
Most fires stem from human or mechanical error, but many stem from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, blizzards, lightning strike, and extreme temperatures.
“What’s so striking about this incident in Texas is just the sheer number of animals that were on the operation in one building to begin with,” said Allie Granger, a policy associate with Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).
Fires on large-scale animal farms, or factory farms, are surprisingly common. Over the last decade, at least 6.5 million farm animals, mostly chickens, perished in barn fires in the U.S., according to AWI.
High death tolls could be more likely in the future as mega-factory farms proliferate, packing even more animals into warehouse-sized sheds. From 1992 to 2017, the number of U.S. farms with 1,000 or more dairy cows has more than tripled, even as the total number of dairy cows has remained about the same.
While the number of animal deaths in Dimmitt was eye-catching, the total of deaths from fires at the average farm is astonishing. In 2022, 518,973 farm animals perished in barn fires and many occurred in the Farmworld readership area.
In Kankakee Township in Indiana, 24 chickens, six goats and four horses died after a spark from an extension cord started the blaze.
In Strawn, Illinois, 90 of 140 dairy cows were killed after a truck fire inside the barn set the entire structure on fire.
In Lima Ohio, 35 cattle and five dogs died in a barn fire, and in Georgetown, Kentucky 25 horses perished. Either lightning or faulty wires were suspects according to authorities.
Fires aren’t totally avoidable, but more state agencies could help mitigate the risk by adopting the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code, which requires fire protection measures on farms.
The latest edition, published in 2022, requires annual fire hazard inspections, contacting emergency services when alarms go off, fire drills, employee training, and minimum spacing between buildings. Only a few states have adopted the code for farms.
According to Granger, meat, dairy and egg producers could implement relatively straightforward reforms to prevent fires by conducting proactive fire safety inspections alongside fire officials and experts, ensuring that equipment is routinely checked and maintained, and instituting worker training and emergency planning.
“Unfortunately, these industries have not taken it upon themselves to adopt the code in their own standards and guidelines that they use as a part of their certification programs or auditing programs,” Granger said.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, animal farms don’t have the same fire codes and safety requirements as buildings designed for humans. Farms often lack fire alarms and sprinklers, and they’re filled with flammable materials.
The National Ag Safety Database offers a few tips to help prevent barn fires.
• Hay, straw and other types of bedding should not be stored in the same building in which livestock is housed.
• Keep highly flammable or combustible materials out of the barn. This includes paint, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides.
• Keep accelerants such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, paint thinner or charcoal lighter fluid out of the animal barn.
• Be watchful for ignition sources. These include motors, heaters, electrical appliances, fence chargers, electrical wires and batteries.
• Wires should be encased in metal conduit pipe.
• Light fixtures, fluorescent lights and insect control devices should have dust- and moisture-resistant covers.
• Portable heaters should not but used in the barn area.
• Smoking should never be permitted in any barn.
• Manure piles should be at least 20 feet away from the barn to reduce the chance of combustion fire.
• Buildings should be equipped with professionally installed lightning rods of copper or aluminum.
• ABC (all class) dry-chemical fire extinguishers should be in all livestock buildings.
• Use heat and smoke detectors for livestock facilities.