op ed articles

Barn Fires should be prevented

Lynn Kavanagh
Winnipeg Free Press

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Forty-six thousand, four hundred -- that's the number of lives lost this year to date in reported barn fires across Canada. No, these are not human lives; they are animals, namely pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, cows, horses and rabbits.

It shouldn't matter that the lives are animals, not human, but it does. That is, according to Manitoba's fire code. The dearth of employees in most livestock barns means buildings are not required to have smoke alarms, sprinkler systems or other fire prevention measures because animals are not considered occupants worth protecting.

The majority of these barns are intensive livestock operations, where animals are held in confinement systems that limit their mobility. Pigs in gestation crates are held in two-foot by seven-foot stalls so restrictive they can barely lie down. Turning around is impossible. Hens in egg operations are crammed five to six in a battery cage, stacked atop one another, rows upon rows. Food and water are delivered via electronic feed and watering systems. The factory nature of most livestock operations means few people are present, with the exception of those needed to perform a handful of management tasks.

A large livestock operation, such as a swine farrowing unit, could house thousands of animals and may employ only 10 to 15 full-time employees. During a fire, animals are stuck, imprisoned, unable to escape and impossible to rescue, while a fire rages around them as they suffer from smoke inhalation and worse, being burned alive.

Photos from the burned out barns show charred bodies of animals, some with exploded abdomens, and sows confined in gestation crates fruitlessly attempting to climb out of their crates.

If the miserable life of these animals cramped in barren confinement systems is not horrific enough, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to being burned alive in an epidemic of fires that have been sweeping barns across Western Canada.

Manitoba saw an eight-fold increase in the numbers of animals killed during barn fires in 2008: 31,013 animals burned to death, predominantly pigs. In recent months, a staggering 15,000 pigs burned alive on July 31 at Cluny Colony in Cluny, Alberta, and a further 2,400 pigs burned alive in Derwent, Alberta on Aug. 17. On July 7, 25,000 chickens died in a Kleefeld, Manitoba, fire. Already this year, 19,000 more animals have died in fires across Canada than in 2008.

In addition to lost animal lives, there are significant economic repercussions in the form of insurance payouts, and lost jobs and livelihoods.

While the Manitoba Fire Commissioner's office considers mandating alarms and sprinklers in new buildings, fires rage on in old ones. This code, if adopted, will apply to new buildings only and will not require that existing buildings be retrofitted with alarms and sprinkler systems.

The construction of new hog barns in Manitoba, however, is virtually non-existent due to a moratorium on new pig barns in already-saturated parts of Manitoba. Furthermore, the proposed code is insufficient. A "medium" or "light industrial" classification on these barns means that farm buildings with fewer than 75 employees would not be required to be equipped with smoke alarms. (Sprinklers would be required if buildings are of a certain size but without alarms, sprinklers are futile since fires burn through the barns so quickly.)

A classification of "high risk industrial" is needed to reflect the particularly flammable nature of these barns -- pig waste contains the highly combustible and explosive gases of hydrogen sulphide and methane.

While many fires have afflicted hog barns in Manitoba and Alberta, barns in other provinces have also been stricken by fires. This presents a unique opportunity for the federal government to take action, to show it cares about animal welfare as is often claimed but rarely demonstrated.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has promised once again to help pork producers hit by the scourge of reduced pork prices with millions in federal funds available for loans and marketing strategies. As always, Minister Ritz has shown himself to be a friend of livestock producers, but his track record on animal welfare is poor.

With the millions of dollars of federal taxpayer money available to assist pork producers, the government must earmark a portion of these funds to support the development and implementation of a Canada-wide fire prevention strategy for livestock barns, and make retrofitting smoke alarms and sprinkler systems in barns housing animal populations a condition for financial assistance. Only then will these fires be curbed.

Lynn Kavanagh is an MSc student in the animal behaviour and welfare program at the University of Guelph and a board member of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.