National Hog Farmer is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Lessons Learned from a Barn Fire

In the middle of a subzero February night, a frantic banging on his front door awakened Lorne Tannas, manager of Tobacco Creek Farm, Manitoba, Canada. This was every pork producer's nightmare. At 3:30 in the morning, a 25-mph north wind was fanning the flames in the 300-ft. breeding-gestation wing of his new production unit a half-mile down the road from Tannas' Red River Valley home. Three volunteer

In the middle of a subzero February night, a frantic banging on his front door awakened Lorne Tannas, manager of Tobacco Creek Farm, Manitoba, Canada. This was every pork producer's nightmare.

At 3:30 in the morning, a 25-mph north wind was fanning the flames in the 300-ft. breeding-gestation wing of his new production unit a half-mile down the road from Tannas' Red River Valley home. Three volunteer fire departments were already on the scene.

Looking back on the Feb. 20, 2003 barn fire, Tannas reflects on the importance of emergency preparedness. After all, if anyone is to be prepared for such a catastrophe, it should be this teacher of an emergency management course at Manitoba Community College. Now, he has firsthand experience to draw on.

Preparation Cut Losses

The breeding-gestation wing was stocked with boars and 1,700 gilts. The farrowing wing, under construction for five to six months, was nearly ready.

Tannas had made sure that fire prevention and protection features in the facility met or exceeded recommended guidelines. Separate buildings in the yard housed the main power shut-off, a backup generator and a boiler.

At Tannas' request, fire department officials from Lowe Farm, Manitoba, had inspected the barn just two weeks earlier, so they were familiar with the structure. Firefighters immediately switched off the power and found and drained the barn's internal water cistern. They also quickly found the water reservoir, chopped through ice, then ran hoses to the pumper trucks.

“We had built a really safe, good barn,” Tannas says. An automatic alarm system was installed to alert a series of people if fire broke out. Unfortunately, the system wasn't operational in the side under construction where automatic heaters were operating. That's where the fire started.

Gyproc firewalls, with a two-hour rating, separated each leg of the barn from the middle section. Firefighters won their battle against the spreading flames at the second firewall, just a few feet from live animals in the breeding and gestation area.

By 7 a.m., it was mostly over. Buried power lines had been completely dug out by a backhoe as it scraped away burning materials in the middle section. There was no way to restore electricity quickly. Twenty-two hundred animals were alive, but with no heat, light, water, feeding or ventilation system; they had to act fast.

Help and Recovery

As an educator, Tannas says his sense of trust became one of the most significant issues in dealing with the experience. “When something bad happens for an unforeseen reason, trust has to be reestablished,” he says. “Yes, bad things can happen, but there are good people out there who can come to our aid.”

Two friends were on the scene almost immediately.

“The general manager of KPA (Keystone Pig Advancement), Bill Oakley, came out at 7 a.m., wearing dress shoes and a suit. He stayed until he found homes for all the animals,” Tannas says. By early evening, all animals were sold for breeding stock and on the way to other barns.

“Lorne Funk, general manager of Funk Transport, came out himself. I told him we needed trucks, and he pulled five or six trucks off his other routes for us that day,” he adds.

Emotional exhaustion hits hard in the first hours. It can be the edge of a dangerous downward slope, leading to blame, feelings of guilt, anger and isolation, explains Tannas.

“People would look at each other at different times in the evening and say, ‘we're probably not going to have a job after today,’” he continues. “Uncertainties about the future hit you emotionally. You need to work through it — and that takes time. It's OK to grieve, but at some point we have to come back and work our way out of it. How that's done is through rebuilding trust, over time.”

Well before the fire, Tannas had established a high level of trust with many individuals, companies and institutions. When the worst happened, he was willing to ask for help and many were prepared to give it.

A key element in his recovery was having equity, other than the new barn, to draw on. “Avoid having a ratio so tight that you don't have enough equity to get going again if something bad happens,” Tannas says. The major creditor (Steinbach Credit Union) allowed bridge financing and some delay in the start of repayments, partly because the family did have other equity.

Other people stepped up, too.

Barn owner Ray Waldner, and his father Dave, remained positive and looked forward rather than wallowing in self-pity. Dave Waldner took on the role of general contractor for reconstruction. He was there days, evenings and weekends to keep all the contractors on track.

The primary construction company, Penner Farm Services, recognized that cash flow projections had been disrupted, but agreed to rebuild anyway. Mid-Lite Electric job supervisor Doug Kathler put in 12- to 16-hour days as reconstruction moved ahead.

Their feed supplier, East-Man Feeds, also offered assistance and agreed to continue deliveries in spite of the cash-flow squeeze. “That's the type of thing that saves you,” says Tannas.

Cleanup and Rebuilding

Direct costs for cleanup and building replacement were borne by the contractor's insurance company. Reconstruction took just three months. New boars and gilts were already into production. On September 25, when the first load of weaned pigs went out the door, the staff celebrated.

In January 2004, some insurance issues remained. “We lost revenues. We lost the opportunity with all those animals. We lost salary dollars. We had to repopulate the breeding and gestation facility,” Tannas explains. “A bunch of things didn't fall under our insurance (or the contractor's). So, for us, the loss is still going on.”

Lessons Learned

On the day of the fire, Tannas drew on his lesson plans. He knew that attitude and body language were important. “In emergency management, we stress that managers try to remain calm and keep on top of their emotions,” he says. “People working around you will feed off of you, so you need to have a strong will and personality. Show by body language and through actions that you've got it together.”

Have a checklist of things you will need to know in the aftermath of an emergency, advises Tannas. “Your mind is not going to function like it normally does. There's too much going on,” he adds. “The day of the fire, my mind was jumping through so many things, I couldn't keep them straight.”

Keep critical telephone numbers handy. While the embers were smoldering, Tannas was notifying people who would be affected by the fire. Feed and supply orders were canceled. Insurance adjusters were needed immediately.

He also found areas where he could have been better prepared. It would have been better if:

  • Each section had been separated by a concrete, five-hour firewall;

  • Detectors with alarms for heat, smoke or motion had been set up in the construction area;

  • The barn's emergency management plan had been active from the time the blueprints were drawn (rather than going into effect after the barn was full of livestock);

  • The barn's blueprint was marked, for emergency purposes, showing locations of critical features such as electrical sources, water supply, fire extinguishers and exits; and

  • A duplicate blueprint had been on file at the fire department office.

Suggestions from a Rural Fire Chief

Fire prevention and preparedness are very important, says Don Menzies, volunteer fire department chief in Carberry, Manitoba. A firefighter since 1976, Menzies has been at two hog barn fires. But was not present at Tobacco Creek.

“A building can be too large, in a sense, and that's where you run into trouble trying to put a fire out,” says the fire chief. “And, when buildings are too close together or interconnected, it's very important to have concrete fire stops in the main building. A five-hour (fire stop) is far better than a two-hour.”

When renovating an older barn, put in fire stops wherever possible, he adds. Also, check electrical, heating and exhaust systems with an eye for fire prevention. In older barns, have a preventative maintenance program in place, especially for heating and electrical services, he says.

Open attic spaces are a problem for firefighters. “An open attic creates a draft effect and helps spread the fire faster,” he explains. “If you can minimize wide open attic spaces, it's better.”

Preparations really start off the farm. Rural neighbors need to cooperate. “Neighbors may have a water system or machinery that would help. They might provide manpower. Know what they have, and how it might help,” he says.

Tours by local firefighters are important, and should be taken yearly, because things change in most farms every year. The Carberry crew will visit any type of barn in the area, he says. Many tours are taken during winter when it's too cold for outdoor training.

“I know you have to be very careful who you let in your barns, but at least allow one or two firefighters in every year,” Menzies urges.

Consider arranging a fire inspector visit. They're trained to spot situations that could lead to trouble.

The best-prepared farms have:

  • A water supply outside the barn;

  • A power supply to an outside water source, available at all times;

  • A backup power system, isolated from main buildings, especially for barn ventilation and the water supply;

  • An automatic alarm system, tied into a telephone line, to monitor and report the presence of heat or smoke;

  • Comprehensive, clearly marked blueprints of the barn and surrounding buildings, on file with area fire departments; and

  • Employees trained by local firefighters (for first response).

Dramatic Changes in Farm Insurance

Hog barn insurance costs in the U.S. and Canada have soared as requirements have tightened the past three to four years, says Edward Tetrault, a senior insurance broker in Manitoba, Canada.

Manitoba's largest farm insurance brokerage, Barnabe & Saurette Insurance Brokers Ltd., St. Jean, handled the Waldners' Tobacco Creek Farm insurance. Tetrault, a broker for 24 years, specializes in hog barn insurance.

“We knew rates were going up, capacities (to offer insurance) were coming down, and that companies were going to pull out of the wood-frame, unprotected market,” he says. “The 9-11 event was only the tip of the iceberg.”

Today's rates, in a “hard” market, are up approximately 250% from September 2000, because insurance companies are paying much more for re-insurance, they've suffered serious losses, and those losses are being passed on to producers, he explains.

Insurance Rates, Types

Brokers encourage pork producers to take at least three types of insurance, covering buildings, animals and business interruption. Tetrault says contractors should also carry sufficient coverage.

Manitoba pork producers now pay $650 to $750 annually for each $100,000 of replacement insurance on new construction. Rates increase with barn age. Beyond 20 to 25 years, most barns can be insured for depreciated value only. Rates can be less if a barn is close to a full-time fire company or a fire hydrant.

Animals, too, should be insured for replacement. This rate is a little more than barn rates because chances of loss are higher.

Business interruption insurance costs about the same as barn insurance. It's an essential policy rider required by almost all creditors to ensure the producer can keep operating, or resume operation, if there is a major loss.

“The idea is to cover ongoing expenses plus profit you would have made,” Tetrault says. “People who carry business interruption insurance, like Tobacco Creek, always get back into business.”

Business interruption insurance provides interim payments during the rebuilding phase, plus a final payment. The final payment is calculated on the basis of market prices over the 12-month period from the date of the claim event; it's usually paid two to four months later.

Underwriting Rules

Rules for writing the policy are “very tough,” he says. Insurance companies want:

  • Concrete firewalls in new construction that exceeds 30,000 sq. ft.;

  • A smoke stop in the attic to slow the momentum of a fire;

  • Automatic generators to reduce the risk of power interruption claims; and

  • Alarm systems to monitor both heat and electricity.

“If you don't have automatic generators and alarm systems, it is almost impossible to get power interruption coverage,” he adds.

Remodeling an older barn may lower the insurance rate, but it will be tough. Insurers are asking a lot of questions about age, wiring and insulation.

If a fire occurs, expect a lot more insurance questions and paperwork.

An adjuster will collect official reports, then collect information directly from the producer, including farm records. The declaration page will include a barn description, a statement on the square footage, a list of deductibles and more. Adjusters will want to know what the futures market is paying. They'll expect due diligence from the producer at every step, he adds.