Canadian Poultry Magazine

Preventing poultry barn fires

By Daniel Ward, P. Eng   

Features Barn Management

Five practical best management practices to assist poultry farmers in averting these devastating events

With standby generators, it is critical to provide ventilation to prevent the motor from overheating. Credit: OMAFRA

The topic of barn fires and how to prevent them has received a lot of attention in Ontario over the past 10 years. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) created a technical advisory group in 2007 to discuss this serious topic and develop some recommendations to reduce its’ occurrence.

The group has developed numerous factsheets and a booklet titled Reducing the Risk of Fire on your Farm in the intervening years. The ministry posted these resources on its website.

Looking at several of the broiler barn fires in Ontario over the past 10 years, experts have observed a common trend around the timing of when the fire occurred. Often, it was just before chick arrival when the barn was being heated up or in the days immediately after chick placement.


The exact cause of the fire is often undetermined due to the degree of damage to the building. However, some possible reasons include dust and debris on heater surfaces after bedding placement igniting and dropping to the bedding on the floor when the heaters are started. Another possible cause is the heater malfunctioning during extended use when producers are warming up the barn.

There have also been fires that were started during bedding placement – if the farmer was using a straw chopper in the barn and something caused a spark (e.g., a piece of metal in the straw bale), which ignited bedding.

This article will focus on five practical best management practices (BMPs) to assist poultry farmers in reducing the risk of barn fires. They are devastating events for farming families to deal with and the financial and emotional impacts are felt for many years. Using BMPs in the farm’s daily operations will reduce the risk of such a catastrophic event occurring.

1. Focus on housekeeping
Maintaining a clean and organized barn is a simple and cost-effective way to reduce the likelihood of barn fires. Practical actions like removing clutter and properly storing combustible materials can limit the spread of a fire.

To reduce the risk:

  • Keep clutter, bedding, and other combustibles at least one metre (three feet) away from electrical systems.
  • Remove highly combustible materials such as cobwebs and dust from building surfaces and equipment like heating appliances.
  • Routinely clean motors on fans, grain augers, etc., with compressed air to remove dust and debris.
  • Ensure the barn is a smoke-free workplace and provide an outdoor location as a designated smoking area.
  • Remove debris and clutter from fire exits and outside the building.
  • Remove grass and weeds from outside the barn.
  • Maintain accessible driveways around buildings during all seasons, including in winter.

2. Regularly inspect and maintain permanent electrical systems
The permanent electrical system is one of the most vulnerable areas within a livestock barn. The humidity and corrosive gases generated by livestock and manure degrade the electrical system. The Electrical Safety Code has specific requirements for the installation of electrical equipment within livestock housing areas due to the humid and corrosive environment

To reduce the risk:

  • Ensure electrical equipment in concealed areas (i.e., within a wall or in an attic) is placed in conduit and junction boxes to prevent damage by rodents.
  • Regularly inspect electrical equipment with a thermal camera to identify equipment that is overheating and needs to be serviced or replaced.
  • Use equipment that is designed for the humid and corrosive environment of a livestock barn (NEMA 4X). Only replace existing equipment with the correct components for the environment.
  • Consider using arc fault-protected electrical equipment.
  • Maintain permanent electrical equipment such as fan motors or feed auger motors according to manufacturer guidelines.
  • Keep combustibles away from electrical equipment.

3. Limit the use of temporary electrical equipment
Equipment that is not hard-wired into the electrical system is considered temporary equipment. This equipment may be plugged directly into an outlet using an extension cord or it could be powered from an external fuel source such as a standby generator. Extended use of temporary equipment can increase the chance of a fire occurring through degraded outlets and extension cords, which can be a source of ignition.

To reduce the risk:

  • Use temporary equipment only in an emergency. Monitor temporary equipment regularly during its use.
  • Do not use extension cords that are damaged or frayed.
  • Store extension cords out of livestock housing areas to reduce corrosion on the components.
  • Consider hard-wiring all permanent equipment that will be installed in the barn such as fans or heaters.
  • Keep a 10-lb ABC fire extinguisher within reach when using temporary equipment Note that an ABC fire extinguisher refers to the class of fire they are designed to extinguish: Class A for trash, wood and paper; Class B for liquids and gases; and Class C for energized electrical sources.

4. Regularly maintain heaters
Improperly installed or maintained heaters are a common cause of barn fires. The presence of combustible materials such as bedding, dust, etc., in the barn is a contributing factor to fires.

To reduce the risk:

  • Consider another heating source that eliminates open flames and other ignition sources inside the housing area.
  • Ensure all natural gas or propane-fired heating appliances are installed as per manufacturer specifications and appropriate codes (e.g., the Natural Gas and Propane Installation Code).
  • Regularly inspect heat shields to ensure they have not been displaced or damaged.
  • Keep heaters suspended well above combustibles (bedding) or where they can be damaged by livestock.
  • Suspend electric heaters (heat lamps) using non-combustible materials such as chains.
  • If necessary, only use portable heaters designed for agricultural purposes (i.e., Stelpro FUHGX Agricultural unit heater).

5. Location of standby generators
Standby generators are a necessary item on a poultry farm to provide critical electricity to operate ventilation equipment, deliver feed and water to birds, etc. during power outages. These appliances are self-contained units powered by an internal combustion engine burning natural gas or diesel. The engine produces a lot of heat during operation. It is critical to provide ventilation to prevent the motor from overheating.

To reduce the risk:

  • Locate the standby generator in a well ventilated, free-standing building away from the poultry barn or locate the generator in a well-ventilated room that is separated from the rest of the barn by a one-hour fire rated wall.
  • Perform regular maintenance on the standby generator as per manufacturer recommendations.
  • Ensure location where hot exhaust pipe transits through building wall has the appropriate heat shield in place.

It is possible to reduce the risk of fire on a farm by implementing these BMPs as part of the routine operating procedures. Simple actions like keeping a clean and tidy environment, properly installing and maintaining equipment and conducting a fire assessment are fire safety best practices. With attention to detail, fire safety risks to farm workers, emergency responders and livestock can be reduced and the trend of increasing financial losses reversed.

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