Farm fires: how can farmers reduce the risks?


Claire Longman, Technical Leader at South West insurer Cornish Mutual comments on what farmers can do to reduce the risks of farm fires over the summer months.

Sadly, each year farm buildings are completely destroyed by fire, sometimes leading to significant loss of stock, machinery and livestock. At Cornish Mutual we handle claims for farm fires all year round, but generally see a three-fold increase in July, August and September.

Farm machinery fires

During harvesting, machinery is often working all day, which means it can still be hot when it is left overnight. If there is any dust or cut grass caught up inside hot machinery, there is a risk it could ignite. Farm machinery is becoming more complex, which means there may be parts of the machine getting clogged up which are not obviously visible. We advise our Members to maintain and regularly check harvesting machinery to ensure it’s clear of debris – particularly after a long day out in the fields.

Harvesting machinery is also more valuable than ever before and losing a machine at a crucial time during the harvest could really set you back. We would advise farmers to seriously consider business interruption insurance to protect against the potential impact of losing vital machinery.

Spontaneous combustion of hay bales

Dry weather may be helpful when it comes to preventing another cause of farm fire. Hay bales are known to sometimes spontaneously combust as the result of a chemical process, which releases heat. Damp or green hay provides the ideal environment for mesophilic bacteria, which give out heat that can cause temperatures to rise to dangerous levels. These fires typically start within six weeks of bailing and are most likely to happen when moisture levels in the hay exceed 20 percent. With many being stored in timber buildings, there is potential for a serious fire to spread very quickly.

Baling in dry weather is the best way to avoid these problems. Of course we can’t control the weather, but baling later in the day gives the best chance of keeping the moisture levels down. Farmers can ensure hay stays as dry as possible, by keeping it in weathertight conditions. Many also monitor bales using a thermometer to check the temperature inside the bales stays below 55 degrees Celsius.

Electrical fires in farm buildings

Another common scenario behind many claims handled at Cornish Mutual, involves fires starting as a result of electrical faults. Many farm buildings include very old electrics and some have poor wiring systems. We recommend that our Members have their electrics checked by a professional electrician every five years.

Out of control farm bonfires

We have also handled a number of insurance claims as a result of bonfires, which have got dangerously out of control simply as the result of a changing wind. Farmers often have substantial bonfires and a change in wind direction can carry embers towards buildings, so it is important to allow for this when choosing where to light a bonfire.

The end of the summer is also an important time for fire safety.  There is a risk of machinery fires starting at the beginning of the season, when it comes out of storage. That is why we advise our Members to give machinery a thorough clean and servicing before it is packed away for the winter.

A fire can be devastating for a farm. While much of this advice is common sense, it is important for farmers to be reminded of the steps they can take to reduce the risks.

For more advice, download our farm fire safety document produced with Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service.


Claire Longman, Technical Leader, Cornish Mutual