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Disaster-proof your farm

Jaden Hilgers/Getty Images Farm field on fire
DISASTER-PROOF: Take the time to prepare your farm and your family for natural disasters now. Create response plans in case of various scenarios, and practice them with family members and employees on a regular basis.
Make sure you prepare your farm and your family for the worst when it strikes.

The 4-County Wildfire is the latest natural disaster to strike farmers in Kansas. And, sadly, it’s not likely to be the last.

If we learn anything from disasters like the 4-County fire, the Anderson Creek fire, the Starbuck fire, the Greensburg tornado and so many others, let it be to prepare ourselves, our families and our farms for the worst when it strikes.

Because flames don’t wait for you to round up livestock. Funnel clouds don’t pause for you to gather up important documents. And rising floodwaters don’t stop at the barn door.

Now, there are countless resources and checklists online for homeowners and families to prepare for emergencies. And you should definitely seek those out.

But we know that farmers and ranchers also have unique considerations, such as remote locations from service providers like fire departments, the need to protect or evacuate livestock, and the amount of flammable chemicals and other items we store every day. Experts at Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, New Mexico State University, Kansas State University, South Dakota State University and the University of Wyoming have created a tip sheet to prepare your ranch or farm for wildfire.

Evaluate risk

So, your first step should be to take stock of your farmstead and the risks surrounding you. Is your area prone to flooding? Are the conditions surrounding you prone to wildfire? Sit down with your spouse or your business partners and game-plan the potential risks. Ask yourselves: If we had moments of notice, what would we do? You’re going to want to create a plan for your family and employees to follow in various scenarios.

In a wildfire plan, for example, it would be good to map out your farmstead and list what fire dangers are stored in your outbuildings. Consider the fire ignition zone surrounding those buildings, and regularly maintain them by trimming lawns, removing tall vegetation, pruning shrubs and otherwise removing flammable debris. That can buy you time in a wildfire event, OSU experts say. Another good tip is to use planned grazing or even prescribed fire before wildfire season to reduce fuel loads around your farmstead.

Your disaster plans should account for your family and employee safety, your livestock evacuation and aftercare, protecting your equipment, and how you’ll manage after the event.

Livestock plans

In a wildfire, it’s instinct to run to protect livestock. But the experts warn that running into an unburned pasture with significant fuel loads and limited or unknown escape routes is very risky. You need to know the fire’s location, its path of movement and its rate of spread before you go into a pasture. Otherwise, you put yourself in danger that might take emergency personnel away from fighting the fire.

Have a livestock evacuation plan, and make sure you consider how you’re going to transport them and where you’ll transport them for safety. Pre-stage your trucks and trailers, so that they can be quickly used to evacuate. Manage the fuel load on your pastures by eliminating ignition sources like cedar trees, and using rotational grazing. Make sure your gates can be opened easily in an emergency, and carry fence pliers with you just in case. If you have water trucks and other equipment that can be used to fight fires, have them fueled up and ready to be deployed.

Plan ahead

Planning ahead can bring you peace of mind if a disaster comes to your door. Here are some more considerations:

1. Go bags. If the emergency requires evacuation, having a bag with essentials to survive for several days is critical for each member of the family. Put changes of clothing, safety gear like gloves and goggles, non-perishable food for two days, medications, hygiene items, pet supplies, flashlight and radio, and cash, for example. Update your go bag regularly.

2. Documents. Store original documents like birth, wedding, and death certificates in an off-site location like a safe deposit box. Store digital documents on hard drives or other storage devices off-site in a secure location. Take videos and photos of personal and farm and ranch property and regularly update this proof of inventory for insurance. Back up your photos and videos to cloud-based services.

3. Irreplaceable items. In your emergency plan, have a list of irreplaceable items that you should grab if you have time and make sure they are in an easy-to-access location. But if it’s a choice between your safety or property, your safety comes first.

4. Disaster plans. Create evacuation and shelter-in-place plans for your farm and make sure that your family members and employees regularly review and practice them. Post them in visible locations around your farm. And have backup plans in case your evacuation route is cut off.  

5. Hay storage. Don’t store all of your hay in one location, to reduce the risk of it all burning at once. Maintain your hay stack by mowing fuels down next to it, and create firebreaks around stored hay by blading or disking to bare ground. Store hay away from buildings and other equipment that could be damaged by fire. And cut down volatile fuels like cedars around storage sites.

6. Contacts. Make sure you have important phone numbers to the fire department, emergency responders, and your neighbors in your phone. Also, in remote ranch locations, have permanent mile markers and other directional devices installed to aid fire crews in noting their locations.

Here are some websites to visit for additional help in creating your farm disaster plans:

• Firewise USA, firewise.org
• National Fire Protection Association, nfpa.org
• Ready.gov, ready.gov/wildfires
• Fire Adapted Communities, fireadapted.org
• FEMA, fema.gov
• Rotary Wildfire Ready, rotarywildfireready.com

Disasters happen every month of the year. As we saw with the 4-County Wildfire, fire doesn’t wait for the spring months. Take the time to disaster-proof your farm now.

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