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Editorial Information

Mark White BVSc LLB DPM MRCVS

Published 2001

Reviewed byMark White BVSc LLB DPM MRCVS 2016

Pig Health - Fires on the Pig Farm


Unfortunately, indoor pig farms are quite vulnerable to fire, particularly as many buildings are panel constructed and the materials used are highly combustible.

Farm fires are all too common. In addition, very few pig farms in the UK now do not use straw and this is often stored for convenience close to buildings.  The vulnerability of straw stacks to fire makes this proximity to buildings highly dangerous.

The causes of farm fires can be split into several broad categories:-

  • Natural e.g. due to lightening strike or ignition of straw by, for example, glass magnifying sunlight.
  • Accidental.   Electrical faults, sows knocking creeps and igniting bedding with dislodged lamps or gas heaters and lamp drop (particularly 250w IR bulbs) onto floors can all set off fires and are probably the most common causes of pig farm fires.
  • Stupidity.  Bonfires lit too close to buildings, maintenance work generating sparks (e.g. bedding) and use of flame guns to clean floors close to inflammable materials have all been implicated as causes of fires on farm.
  • Deliberate.  Arson is most commonly encountered as a result of children playing in straw stacks but may also result from the activities of disgruntled ex staff, neighbours or just pyromaniacs.  Occasionally, insurance scams involve setting fires to pig buildings, with a total disregard for the animals inside.

Dealing with the fire

Consideration should be given as part of a planning exercise as to how to deal with fire.  Many units will have extinguishers, which can cope with small fire but many farms do not have sufficient water pressure to deal with a major incident.  Bigger vulnerable units may well need their own or access to a reservoir of some form. Extinguishers should be selected with consideration for the risks involved - eg carbon dioxide is appropriate to use on electrical fires, water is not.

The siting of straw stacks should be given careful thought. They tend to be placed close to the buildings in which straw is required both for convenience and for biosecurity reasons - to avoid having to cross outside contaminated ground to access the stack.

When a fire occurs, the natural instinct of stockmen is to try and get pigs out and, whilst this is a commendable attitude, there are major problems to consider.

1)      Opening doors will often fan the fire.

2)      Electricity may still be on and if water pipes have melted the wet floor may make the whole building live.

3)      Smoke and poisonous fumes may well already fill the building, making it dangerous to enter.

4)      Pigs do not naturally move away from fire - in fact they will tend to be attracted to it and it can be very difficult to drive them out, increasing the dangers.

5)      Pigs do not generally react well to urgency or panic and tend to 'freeze'

6)      Release of pigs into the yard area around buildings can create a hindrance to firemen.  Bare in mind that few firemen are familiar with pigs and many are actually scared of them, particularly sows.  The fire brigade cannot attend a fire if they do not have unimpeded access.

7)      The fire brigade's primary responsibilities in dealing with a fire are the preservation of human life and protection of property by limiting spread of the fire. Animals are not a priority in such situations.

In the case of a small fire or in very early stages it may be reasonable to try and extinguish it and or remove the pigs. However, once a building fire is established the only safe option is to get out as quickly as possible and shut doors. The rapid accumulation of smoke will bring a rapid death to the pigs trapped inside.

It may be appropriate in some circumstances to try and empty adjacent buildings of pigs that are not yet on fire but are at risk. This will depend on layout, numbers, staff availability and other safety considerations.

Once the fire brigade are in attendance they are in charge. The electricity supply should have been cut and farm staff and attending veterinary surgeons should only re-enter buildings once the chief fire officer on the scene deems it safe to do so and only then with appropriate PPE. The fire brigade will not permit use of breathing apparatus for untrained individuals This is one of very few practical situations facing a veterinary surgeon where unfortunately animal welfare is not the immediate priority.

Prevention

  • Siting of straw stacks should be given careful consideration ensuring they are far enough away from stock buildings to limit fire spread preferably down wind from buildings. Siting should however also consider biosecurity.
  • Ensure electrical installation is sound and properly maintained.
  • If using creep lamps ensure they cannot be dislodged by sows and place a wire cage around the shade to avoid hot bulbs dropping out onto combustible materials
  • If undertaking farm maintenance such as welding or husbandry tasks such as flame gunning, ensure there are no combustible materials close by.
  • Don't light bonfires close to buildings! (As a rule farm bonfires are not now permitted due to environmental regulation)

Consequences

Pigs damaged by fire represent both a humane and a financial disaster, although with respect to the latter it is usually one aspect that is actually covered by insurance on farm.

Any pig that has suffered burns require humane destruction as the facilities available in the normal farm for treating burns do not exist. This can only be done once safe access is established. Pigs also appear to be seriously affected by smoke and fume inhalation, with many apparently recovered animals dying within 24-48 hours especially sows.  From an economic point of view, smoke damaged pigs stop growing and will often turn into "screws" if not despatched.

The veterinary surgeon attending the fire site will make the appropriate decision for each circumstance but, as a general rule, any pigs that have been significantly affected by smoke should be destroyed on humane grounds or slaughtered immediately (within 24 hours) if large enough and if viewed by the veterinary surgeon to be fit enough to be transported.  The slowed growth, inevitable upsurge of secondary disease, compounding the lack of accommodation following a fire will only add to the suffering of the pigs and the economic loss.

It will usually be necessary to liaise with insurance loss adjusters but the responsibilities of the stockman and veterinary surgeon are such that the pigs' welfare is the primary concern and animals that are affected and suffering should not be kept alive to satisfy insurers interests. Insurers are usually unlikely to argue with a veterinary surgeon over animals deemed to require humane destruction. Typically, a written report will be required from the veterinary surgeon to support a claim and this should contain as much detail regarding the pigs as possible (numbers affected/destroyed, size and status, etc). It is not the role of the veterinary surgeon to provide opinion or speculate on the cause of a fire within an insurance report.

As pig farm buildings are replaced over time better attention to construction materials, electrical installation and siting considerations would be expected to reduce the risk of a building fire. Alarm systems are essential in powered buildings but are of limited value in the fire situation simply because of the speed of progression of the fire. Sprinkler systems are not typically installed with fire in mind in pig buildings in the way that is now normal in offices and public buildings.

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