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Fireproof Your Barn | Winter 2008 Out Here Magazine

A tragic barn fire sparked by an electrical short took a heavy toll on Jaran Rundahl and his dairy business.

Think twice about heating and cooling appliances

By Leah Call
Photography by Tara Walters

On a cold January morning three years ago, Jaran Rundahl of Coon Valley, Wis., watched helplessly as his 290-foot milking barn burned to the ground. With his sons' help, he was able to get 84 of 144 cattle out before the barn was engulfed.

"I have nothing but praise for the volunteer firefighters," Rundahl says of those who prevented the fire from spreading to his house, just 70 feet away.

Barn fires, with the death and destruction they inflict, are top of mind for just about any livestock owner — or they should be. Fire destroys more than 1,000 U.S. livestock and poultry storage facilities each year, notes the National Fire Protection Association.

Many of those fires could have been prevented, says Laurie Loveman, a Highland Hills, Ohio, fire official who has made fire safety and barn fire prevention her mission.

"Most things that can be done to fireproof a barn are cost-free," she says. "The main step is housecleaning, sweeping up hay and straw, keeping the aisles clear. Most of it is labor intensive, but it is something you have to keep up with."

Heating and cooling appliances used inappropriately are responsible for most preventable barn fires, particularly during winter, she says.

"The heat lamps and heaters fall onto the bedding, ignite the bedding, and there goes your barn," Loveman says.

Horse blankets and specially designed coats for other animals are an alternative to heating units. If you must use a heat lamp, she says, look for one that is entirely enclosed, which reduces the chances of the bulb igniting bedding.

On the Rundahl farm, an electrical short in a tractor's tank heater, used to keep fuel warm and eliminate cold starts, started the massive barn fire. The tank heater was plugged in at the west end of the barn — a practice that the Rundahls have since stopped.

"We don't plug those in overnight now, just an hour or two before we need to use them," Rundahl says. "That is safer."

Not all fires happen during cold weather. In summer, using improper fans to cool a farm building also can lead to fire and tragedy.

"Residential-type box fans don't have sealed motors like agricultural fans. Dust, hay, and straw get into the motor and ignite," Loveman says. "Get an agricultural fan. Those have sealed motors. Nothing can get in them."

A tidy barn is the first line of defense against fires, she says, but these suggestions also will help:

  • Clear cobwebs. They help flames spread; plus, flaming pieces can fall and start new fires.
  • Unplug unused extension cords.
  • Unplug a fence charger if a pasture is not being used.
  • Keep doorways clear.
  • Make sure doors and stalls can open with one hand, so you can evacuate the barn more quickly, if need be.

A barn fire takes a heavy emotional and financial toll. "When you have a fire, you never have adequate insurance," Rundahl says. "We added insurance to that barn two years before, but we were still underinsured."

And things changed forever at the farm. Rundahl never did rebuild his milking barn. He sold the surviving dairy cows and changed his operation over to all beef and feeder cattle.

Leah Call is a freelance writer in Westby, Wis.