Barn fires are often difficult to fight because of the long distances between farms and firefighters, and a limited supply of water on farms
There were 327 reported barn fires in Canada from 2015-19. Exact cause was determined in only one-third of them. Some are still under investigation.
In many barn fires, evidence is lost in the blaze because of intense heat. Unfortunately, it often takes too long for rural firefighters to arrive on the scene. By the time efforts are underway to extinguish the fire, it has spread to the entire structure and adjacent facilities.
Water volume is another factor. Fire trucks often carry only 800 to 1,000 gallons. When it’s gone, operators have to get refills while the blaze consumes more evidence about cause.
If an unlimited water supply is available, firefighters might be able to battle the fire for hours and ultimately control it to the extent that inspectors can determine the cause later.
However, some livestock structures have burned to ground level in 13 minutes, leaving no evidence for inspectors.
Research on barn fires from the Puslinch Fire Rescue Services and the University of Waterloo determined that a barn can be fully engulfed within four minutes of ignition.
In cases where the fire’s cause was determined beyond doubt, three-quarters were shown to be mechanical or electrical in nature, especially those involving electric heaters.
Even with unlimited water and good equipment, fighting a fire in a Canadian winter is a major feat, according to the research. Hoses freeze at the metal connecting points, pumps lose their rated capacity, firefighters slip on ice, cold-weather gear restricts performance and fingers and toes can experience frost bite.
It is sometimes impossible to get fire trucks up to the barn if snow has not been cleared. Half of all barn fires happen at night when winter temperatures plummet, making the firefighters’ job more challenging. Darkness impedes their ability to fight the fire.
Most rural fire brigades are made up of volunteers. Calling to notify 15 or 20 volunteers in the middle of the night and getting them outfitted and to the fire is a huge time consideration. By the time the first truck shows up, the fire may have already totally consumed the barn.
Even when multiple departments are called, the time factor gives the fire a major head start. There are precious few stories of burning barns being saved.
Adding to these challenges, the research report said, electrical wires can arc on the metal siding of a barn, creating the risk of electrocution. And barns can shoot flames a great distance when they collapse.
Bringing this winter scenario into sharp focus is the fact that 60 percent of all barn fires happen in the coldest months, from September to March, according to the research. This is likely due to the misuse of heating and electrical equipment or cold-induced and moisture-induced electrical and mechanical failures. Another 25 percent happen in the spring.
After responding to two winter fires in one day in December 2019, Perth, Ont., fire chief Bill Hunter released the following statement, contained in the HSI/C report:
“There is more at stake than the barn. Yesterday that was very clear due to the loss of livestock and the risk our crews faced driving to these scenes in winter weather conditions. Poor visibility and icy roads were certainly a factor.
“Not only are the firefighters exhausted after a day like this, they still have to get up and meet their daily commitments, which takes tremendous support from family, coworkers and employers.”