UNPRECEDENTED high temperatures last summer led to a 22 per cent increase in the number of farm fires in the South West of England in 2022 with costs totalling £10.6 million, new figures from NFU Mutual reveal.
Across the UK, NFU Mutual dealt with more than 2,200 farm fire claims involving growing crops, buildings and farm equipment in 2022, compared to over 1,800 in 2021. The UK cost of farm fires totalled £83.5m.
With UK temperatures reaching 40°C for the first time, tinder dry conditions saw a large number of fires, causing damage to crops and buildings but also putting animals and lives in danger.
One such experience was that of John and Sue May, who farm near Crediton.
A major barn fire left the couple without feed or housing for their Pedigree Devon cattle over winter and most of their machinery destroyed.
Fortunately, the couple had business interruption insurance in place, in addition to their cover for the buildings, stored crops and farm machinery, which covered the farm’s extra costs enabling them to keep going through the winter.
The couple said: “Our business interruption insurance proved invaluable – we had lost our cattle housing building, our cash crop of wheat, all the straw for the winter and had nowhere to keep stored feed, so had to buy expensive feed in small bags.
“Emily and Peter from NFU Mutual’s Tiverton office did a brilliant job dealing with the claim and were able to reassure us that we had no worries about our insurance.”
The cause of the fire, which destroyed the steel frame barn during 2022’s record hot summer, is still undetermined.
All was well when John left the barn to combine a field of barley at 8pm on the evening the fire broke out. Two hours later his wife Sue heard a loud noise like fireworks. When she looked out of the farmhouse, she could see flames rising over the courtyard buildings.
She called 999, then raced to the yard to find the shed totally engulfed in flames.
Firefighters were on the scene from Crediton and surrounding areas within 20 minutes.
Sue said: “I couldn’t believe how quickly the fire engines got here – but despite their huge efforts with 12 fire engines in total, all 250 tonnes of stored wheat was lost together with our big baler, fertiliser spreader, seed drill and other large machinery, together with all the workshop tools.
“Some of our outbuildings were damaged with the intensity of the heat and firefighters were on the farm for two days damping down. The blaze cut off power to our two poultry houses, but by 9am the following morning, Sunday, an emergency generator was on site and power was resumed to the chicken units to provide essential heat and light to keep the birds alive and maintain their welfare.
“We’ve found that it’s not losing the building that has caused the most problems - it’s the huge hassle and disruption to the farm.”
In addition, UK agricultural vehicle fire claims, recorded separately by NFU Mutual, increased by 13 per cent last year.
Of this, combine harvesters were the farm vehicles hardest hit by harvest fires, with the number of fires doubling in 2022 to 258. Higher repair and replacement costs led to a rise of 211 per cent to £11.1 million in the value of combine fire claims.
With the weather set to become more extreme in the future with drier and hotter summers on the horizon, NFU Mutual is urging farmers in the South West to prepare a comprehensive farm fire prevention plan and fit fire suppressors to combines.
Hannah Binns, NFU Mutual Rural Affairs Specialist, said: “The huge increase in the number of farm fires in 2022 compared to 2021 highlights how important it is for farmers in the South West to prepare for very hot and dry summers in the future.
“For weeks on end last summer, the countryside was so dry that a spark or overheating combine bearing could lead to a fire, engulfing the machine and spreading to the surrounding crops.
“Farmers did a great job putting in place bowsers of water in their fields so fires could be tackled quickly, and ploughing fire breaks across fields to stop fires spreading – but even these measures weren’t enough to prevent hundreds of combines, tractors and balers, together with thousands of acres of crops, being destroyed.
“Farm fires put lives at risk as well as causing disruptive and devastating damage to rural businesses, so it is essential farmers have fire plans in place.”
Andy Manson, Head of Risk Management Services at NFU Mutual, added: “With scientists predicting hotter, drier summers, it makes sense to plan ahead for this possibility and put measures in place to help prevent farm fires and make them easier to put out.
“In practice, that means making sure all plant and vehicles are regularly maintained and checked for wear and damage – particularly to electrical parts and wiring.
“It’s also important to have a regularly-revised fire plan covering evacuation procedures for buildings, managing livestock, maintenance and cleaning schedules for machinery and training and inspection procedures for fire alarms and extinguishers.
“For highly vulnerable kit, including combines and balers, rigorous attention to maintenance and cleaning is essential. NFU Mutual also recommends fitting fire suppressors to combines and offers premium discounts to policyholders who fit approved systems.”
NFU Mutual Risk Management Services Farm Fire Safety Guide:
• Have a plan in place – Put people at the heart of your fire plan and ensure everyone on site knows what to do in the event of a fire. The biggest priority in the event of a fire is to evacuate everyone safely, including people working in or living around the premises, taking special care to assist any vulnerable persons.
• Don’t mess with electrics - Electrical faults are a major cause of farm fires and electric shocks can cause death or severe injury. Don’t try and attempt electrical work yourself and always use a qualified and competent electrician for work and inspections. DIY modifications, poor environmental conditions (such as wet, damp or acidic atmospheres), rodents, overloaded sockets and simple wear and tear are common causes of electrical fires on farms.
• Suppress the risk – Suppression systems are a major game changer for the industry and play a critical role in detecting, containing and extinguishing fire. Whether you have a biomass boiler or a combine harvester, when working in hot, dry conditions, fire suppression systems can save lives and property.
• Keep on top of your housekeeping – Good housekeeping is absolutely essential to ensure materials and machinery are stored correctly and to eliminate dust and debris. The build-up of waste and materials not only adds to the fuel that can burn in a fire, but can block escape routes and cause trip hazards in an emergency.
• Control hot work – Welding, cutting or grinding equipment, along with blow lamps and blow torches can produce sparks which can turn into fires if they hit a combustible material. If work can’t be done outside, ensure you are in a clear, open area and far away from combustible materials (including combustible building structures). Anyone carrying out hot works on your farm should be subject to a strict “Permit to Work” system.
If a fire breaks out:
• Call the Fire and Rescue Service immediately
• Make sure everyone is made aware of the fire and evacuate people to a safe location as per your emergency plan
• Only attempt to fight the fire if it is safe to do so and using the correct and maintained extinguishers
• Prepare to evacuate livestock, but only if safe to do so if the fire spreads
• Prepare to use farm machinery to assist the Fire and Rescue Service, but only on their instruction
• Ensure you can direct emergency services to the exact location of the fire e.g. download the “what3words” app which pinpoints specific 3m x 3m locations. Send someone to meet and direct the Fire and Rescue Service to the fire
• Ensure the farm entrance is clearly signed and access kept clear to allow Fire and Rescue Service access.