When Phil Borgic’s Nokomis, Ill., hog operation caught fire in 2018 and damaged 3 acres of buildings, he learned a thing or two about fire prevention. On the list: a fire extinguisher at every single exit in every sow building, both in his barns and in his cooperators.’
2019 saw at least 84 rural fires in Illinois, according to a newspaper analysis by Salah Issa, University of Illinois Extension farm safety specialist.
Fire counts in 2020 were likely even higher due to drought conditions causing field fires ahead of harvest. But in 2019, those fires occurred in the winter — with 65% in January, February, November and December. Fires from March to May add another 10%. The pattern is similar every year. The winter season is also fire season for rural residents and farmers. And in 2019, five people died in rural Illinois fires.
“About 40% of the fires occurred in barns, and we had multiple incidents where animals died — horses, cows, pigs and ducks,” Issa says. “Then rural houses were about 25% of incidents. Then we have sheds and farm buildings at 18% of incidents.” Equipment fires made up 12%, and field fires just 6%, though he says those incidents are more likely to go unreported.
Borgic has taken his hard-earned lessons to heart. Here are three ways he advises the farmers he partners with to help fight building fires in the winter:
Tap into water. “We have 100,000 gallons of water underneath our offices that the fire department can drop their hose into and suck water out of if there’s a fire,” Borgic says.
Other sow facilities with Borgic Farms likewise have a water reserve to fight fires, whereas his farrow-to-finish partners are typically smaller and don’t have concrete pits with a collar and sleeve for easy access by firefighters.
“I have been advising partners to have a water buffer for the pigs — maybe 10,000, 15,000 gallons — but that’s not much when you’re fighting a fire. When you get closer to 100,000, that’s when it makes sense to have a collar where they can drop in and pump out of,” Borgic says.
Use less flammable materials. Borgic says he’s using much less paper now across Borgic Farms.
“We use scanners now to input all of our breeding data, farrowing data. Now each sow has their own individual card. We don’t put that breeding information on a piece of paper and then have it transferred to the office, and then you’ve got that stack of paper somewhere,” Borgic says.
In rebuilding the Nokomis farm, contractors made the walls separating buildings with nonflammable materials.
Take care with electric devices. Borgic says the majority of his farmers use electric-ignition box heaters instead of pilot-light heaters. They also check wiring for faults that could cause a fire.
“A majority of these fires are electrical. A motor overheating, a bad outlet or breaker box — you need to make sure your electrical circuits are in good repair,” Borgic says.
While an investigation never found the exact source of Borgic’s fire in May 2018, he says they did determine it was an electrical fire.
Issa says residue on planters and in grain dryers tends to be a fire hazard. Keeping this equipment clean over the winter “protects a farmer’s investment,” he says.
When it comes to livestock, hay and straw are very flammable. “So be careful where you locate your box heaters,” Issa concludes.