Blazing Tragedies: Sad Truths of Barn Fires

Imagine clouds of smoke burning your lungs as you’re locked in a cage, trapped in a building on fire, unable to escape no matter how hard you fight or scream. Now imagine that not only is keeping you trapped in there perfectly legal, but if you die, the building owner will receive a lot of insurance money for whatever they value your life’s worth. This scenario is a reality for hundreds of thousands of farmed animals yearly who die horrific deaths in barn fires. Some die from smoke inhalation. Others are burned alive. Those that do survive are usually so severely injured that they must be euthanized. And no matter how many die, this isn’t even considered animal cruelty.

Despite the devastating statistics there are no laws against keeping dangerous conditions, so many farmers still refuse to take simple precautions to prevent barn fires and animal deaths. Since farmed animals are considered commodities by the legal system, many farmers see the loss of their lives as just another insurable expense. It is more cost effective to risk letting animals burn alive than spend money on updates that would prevent the tragedies.


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The Horrific Numbers Behind Barn Fires

Approximately 18,000 cows died in an explosion at a dairy farm in Texas recently, adding to the nearly three million who perished in fires between 2018 and 2021. These numbers are not surprising since the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has documented almost 6.5 million animal deaths in fires since 2013. The majority of these, 6 million, were chickens. The ten largest fires between 2018 and 2021 account for about 75% of all casualties and all involved chickens. In addition, the reported estimates are likely much lower than the actual number because municipalities are not required to report animal losses or barn fires. This most recent barn fire is considered the deadliest fire involving cows on record.


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Barn Fire Deaths Are Preventable

There is a distinct possibility that farmers could have prevented these fires and their subsequent deaths if they had taken proper precautions and preparations. “Although effective fire suppression methods are available, the industry continues to allow millions of helpless farmed animals to burn to death without changing course.” Hundreds of thousands of animals will continue to burn alive until industrial farms take the problem seriously and implement safety measures.

In January of 2020, around 10,000 chickens burned alive in a fire on a farm owned by Delaware-based Mountaire Farms, near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Less than 24 hours later another barn fire killed 24,000 chickens who were trapped inside. “The county’s deputy fire marshal, Joe Mullens, told one media outlet that the structure, which was built in 1978, was exempt from fire codes; he merely encouraged farmers to practice “good housekeeping.


What Causes Barn Fires?

The cause of many barn fires often remains unknown. Still, electrical malfunctions and defective or poorly placed heating devices are at the top of the list of possibilities—nearly two-thirds of the cases in which a cause was determined involved electrical malfunctions or electrical heating devices. However, farmers can prevent most barn fires with proper inspection, maintenance, and detection systems. “Disaster is all but assured in conventional, industrial farming operations, which cram animals by the thousands into barns with no chance of escape. While some farmed animals die almost immediately as fires rage through barns, others have to be euthanized later due to severe burns and smoke inhalation.”


Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media

The United States has no federal laws protecting animals from barn fires. Barn fires are monitored at the local, state, and national levels, but none of these are required to report farm animal casualties. Since there are no requirements for reporting, there is a lot of incomplete data on how many animals have suffered and died in barn fires. A few states have adopted the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code. The National Fire Protection Association establishes safety requirements for animal housing and barns. The code does nothing, however, for animals in states that have not adopted it.

Animal Welfare Institute

From 2018-2021, Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) compiled and analyzed data from all reported barn fires. Fires have occurred throughout the country in at least 46 states, but most happened in northeastern and midwestern states during the colder months. This would suggest that cold weather affected many of these fires. “About 59 percent of fatal barn fires occurred from October to March, and more than twice as many barn fires occurred in winter (January through March) than in summer (July through September). Throughout the 2018-2021  study, approximately 748,000 animals died in barn fires yearly.

Graphic courtesy of AWI
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Barn Fires by The Numbers

Below is a breakdown of fires per year and farm animal deaths per year, followed by an analysis of all deaths by species. Chickens and other birds are the animals most often affected by barn fires. The second most affected animal is pigs. The reason these animals are the ones who are affected by most fires is due to the housing situations in which chickens or pigs are held. Cage-free chickens appear to be at the most risk. Dust levels up to nine times the amount found in caged chicken housing were documented by scientific research, so it would appear this is a contributing factor in the number and severity of barn fires.


Proper precautions, inspections, maintenance, and training could prevent many of these fires and, in the process, prevent many horrible, painful deaths. It is time to put more regulations and standards into effect and hold farms accountable. Burning to death is a terrible way to die. No animal or human deserves to die in such an awful manner. Fire safety and prevention should be a top priority on all farms nationwide.

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